Sunday, December 31, 2006 Syria Syria

Around Haleb

This is all that remains of the allegedly 17-metre high pillar upon which St Simeon spent his final years. [IMG_0679]
Qala'at Samaan (St Simeon's Basilica) [Enlarge]

St Simeon's Basilica

The next morning there were no members of staff to be seen in the Spring Flower Hostel, so no breakfast for us. We'd arranged to meet Ali and our driver for the day at 08:30 so we couldn't hang around waiting for someone to appear. We gave up and went outside where the driver was waiting in a 20 year old Mitsubishi Lancer.

One of the most impressive things we've seen on our travels is the vehicles. Cars that would have been scrapped ten, twenty, or even thirty years ago in to UK are somehow kept running. There's always the ubiquitous VW camper van, and after that, each city seems to have its speciality. In Budapest it was Trabants (possibly the most famous hangover from the communist era), and here in Syria it seems to be huge American muscle cars. At times you feel like you're walking through an old episode of the Dukes of Hazzard.

It was no muscle car, but our Mitsubishi seemed sound enough. We drove North out of the city, past modern apartment blocks, heading for St Simeon's Basilica. St Simeon was an early Christian who took a notion to worship God in ways which to us seem a bit barking, but to the people of the day were remarkable. He became a huge celebrity. Whether it was locking himself in a hilltop cave without food or water, or balancing atop a large stone pillar for a few years, St Simeon was certainly the David Blaine of his day, though we presume he had different motivations.

As the years went by, his stone pillar kept being added to until it was allegedly 17 metres tall. Perched at the top in perpetual meditation, Simeon attracted a cult following, although his obscure practices were banned by the early church, fearing an escalation in the strangeness. When he died, still up the pillar, from a gangrenous leg wound he was so famous that his devotees declared his pillar a holy site and built a church around it. Later a monastery was added, then a gate and lodgings went up for the many visiting pilgrims, and finally there were the souvenir shops. The whole thing became big business. Today the church is roofless, but remarkably well preserved, and the pillar is nowhere near its original height because pieces have been taken as souvenirs for centuries.

Ain Dara Temple [Enlarge]

Ain Dara Temple

Syria is littered with archaeological sites. The vast majority of sites are unexcavated hills, or tels. Their unnatural shapes usually give them away. Tel Ain Dara is one such hill. One day (in the 1950s we think) a shepherd was hanging around up there while his sheep grazed and he noticed that his dog had dug up something unusual—a piece of black basalt shaped like a huge ear. When the area was excavated by the authorities, the ear's owner—an enormous lion—was uncovered. See the photo of Isla and the lion. The site turned out to be a very early temple dedicated to Ishtar, Goddess of the Moon.

The temple would have been all the more impressive because the black basalt it is built from is so different to the surrounding limestone. It actually occurs naturally in that one spot amid the pink limestone hills. It must have been a powerful symbol to the pagan worshippers who led their sacrificial offerings around the temple's perimeter before ritually slaughtering them on Ishtar's altar. Best of all Ali was able to get us access to the University Archaeology Department's store room where all the finds are kept. So we saw the face of Ishtar, pieces of carved frieze from around the temple showing sphinxes and prowling lions and other artefacts that the regular visitors don't get to see.

Friday, December 29, 2006 Syria Syria

Walking tour of Haleb

Aleppo [Enlarge]

After the finest shower ever, a fresh set of clothes, and a little rest we felt ready for a new day and a new city. We went upstairs to the roof terrace and found our guide for the week, Ali. Over our first glass of Syrian tea, which to our taste was exactly the same as Turkish tea (strong, without milk, and bitter unless you add lots of sugar) he told us a little about himself. He is a student at the university, and has a wife and three young children. He supplements his income by running private tours of Haleb (Aleppo) and Syria. He told us briefly what we would be seeing and doing for the next week, and then our tour began with a walk around the old town of Haleb. The old city, within a still largely intact wall, is a huge, seemingly random pile of buildings: each period (pre-Roman, Roman, Ottoman, Medieval and French) squeezed alongside and on top of the previous ones. Of course the city has now spread far outside the walls and about four million people call Haleb home.

Syria is a country with a long and varied history. A series of invading armies have come, established their rule, bashed the place about a bit and left again. The most recent foreign take over was in 1920 when the French added their name to those of the Egyptians, Persians, Romans and Ottomans. The French Mandate came to an end in 1946 and Syria has been independent ever since. Haleb has been changed architecturally, as well as culturally, as each civilisation has left its mark. And the changes are still going on. In front of the city wall, a row of old shops was demolished last year to reveal the original Roman stonework behind them, and around town new hotels, mosques and apartment blocks are being constructed. A new Sheraton Hotel fills an entire block and dominates the whole area it has been built in. It is due to open any day (as we were there the hotel was running in simulation mode and the staff were being trained).

Ali led us through Bab Antakya, one of five gates into the old city, and the one through which the Ottoman army entered when they took Haleb in 1517, led by the curiously-named Selim the Grim. Bab Antakya leads almost directly into the souk, Haleb's amazing covered market. The souk has been in continuous use as a shopping area since before the Roman times, though the current vaulted stone ceilings are only 700 years old! We got to see the souk at its most authentic as it was thronging with people doing their last minute shopping before the four-day festival of Eid al-Adha.

We did our best to keep up with Ali as he slipped expertly through the crowds of the souk. He stopped from time to time to point something out. One feature he showed us was that the vaulted ceiling occasionally opened into an Ottoman dome. The presence of a dome indicates an important place in the souk, usually a caravanserai (also known as a khan). These are open courtyards with a huge wooden door, large enough for a fully-loaded camel to enter, and strong enough to protect the richest load of silks or spices from night-time thieves. The ground floor of the khan had stabling for the animals, storage for the wares, and a place for the shopkeepers to come and buy wholesale. The balcony above was accommodation for the merchants who had travelled with the caravan along the silk routes that pass through Haleb.

For us the khans were a tranquil haven compared with the bustle of the souk, and we could imagine just how welcome they would have been to the merchants after weeks of trekking across the desert from China or India with their ornate central fountains and beautiful decorations. Many are still in use today by the souk traders. Some have even been used for storing exactly the same wares since they were built, although the old tobacco khan we visited now specialises in cheap shoes.

Outside of the souk Ali showed us some of the other notable buildings in the Old Town and explained the interesting stories behind them. One that demonstrates the Syrian acceptance of different religions concerns the Islamic School, housed in a building which used to be a Christian church. In 1097, Antioch (now Hatay/Antakya, just across the modern Turkish border from Haleb, where we spent the night in a cold, near-deserted bus station) was besieged by Crusaders. A conflict was coming which would engulf Haleb, and the Muslim leaders of Haleb asked the city's Christian population which side they intended to support: Aleppan or Christian. The Christians felt that they were Aleppan first and foremost, and their leaders pledged their full support to their Aleppan brothers; but when the Crusaders reached the city they changed their minds. Eventually the Muslim army triumphed, beating both the Western Christians outside the city and the Syrian Christians inside, and the Christian leaders were called to account for their treachery. The Muslim chief realised he had a dilemma. If he punished the Christian leaders with death, he risked civil war in Haleb, but if he let them go unpunished his authority would be weakened. In the end he devised a punishment that avoided civil unrest, but did not damage his control over the city: he ordered that four Christian churches be surrendered to him, to be converted into three mosques and an Islamic school.

By now it was getting dark so Ali suggested that he take us back to our hostel and we resume the tour the next day. We arranged to meet at 09:30 to give us a chance to catch up on some of our missed sleep from the night before. We hadn't eaten a proper meal since breakfast the previous day, so before we could sleep we needed to find a restaurant of some kind: preferably something easy, both culinarily and culturally. We managed to find a nice safe western-style hotel which did an almost recognisable toasted cheese sandwich and freshly squeezed orange juice—and better still they didn't care that we wanted to eat at an embarrassingly early time of night. By 20:00 we were in bed and asleep.

The alarm on the mobile phone woke us at 07:45 and after another fantastic shower (the shower was the best bit about the Spring Flower Hostel) and a traditional Syrian breakfast of cheese, boiled egg, olives, flatbread and jam prepared in a very dirty kitchen area (the hygiene was the worst bit about the Spring Flower Hostel), we just had time to do the laundry before meeting Ali. The first place he took us to was yet-to-be-opened museum in a former mental hospital. He has lots of contacts in the city and we were privileged to get inside before it actually opens. There is a definite feeling that Syria is really gearing up for tourism now. We truly hope that it will manage to accommodate an influx of tourists without sacrificing its cultural identity and ending up like much of Turkey, with people outside every shop telling you that you are their best friend and trying to sell you the same mass produced rubbish over and over again.

Ali had been telling us about the houses and streets in the old town. Each street is named after the family that lives in it. One extended family shares all the houses in the street, and often they even have a small private mosque too. When sons get married their wives come to live in the family street. When daughters marry they go to live with their husbands' families. Ali's family have their own street in the old town, and our next stop, not on any tourist map, was a definite highlight of our week in Syria: having tea with his family. He took us to meet his mother, wife and children and to have some amazing tea with cinnamon (would never have thought of that).

Ali was 17 and his wife was 15 when they married nine years ago. They now have three children, two boys and a baby girl. When he rang the doorbell, we were surprised that he didn't have a key to his own house. The eldest son, aged 8, answered the door and we realised that he was giving the womenfolk time to go and get veiled up. During tea, Ali's son showed off his English to us, asking us our names and how we were, and reciting the English alphabet. His dad realises how important it will be for him to be able to speak English in the 21st Century, and he has been teaching him well. By contrast, we later discovered that Ali's wife cannot read or write at all—neither English nor her native Arabic—and he is quite OK about this. We wondered whether he will teach his baby daughter English as well as his sons.

After more tea we walked into the Christian Quarter, where we paid a quick visit to the 'Greek Catholic' and 'Greek Orthodox' churches. Not being totally clued up on all the different versions of Christianity practised around the world, we didn't know the difference between Greek Catholic and Greek Orthodox, and to our relief Ali didn't know the difference either. Things were further confused when he told us that the Arabic signs on the churches translated as 'Roman Catholic' and 'Roman Orthodox'.

In what would become a major theme for the week, Ali kept repeating how tolerant Muslim society is of the other religions. Well, at least the other Abrahamic religions (Christianity and Judaism). He has no time at all for what he called the “tree worshippers”, by which he presumably meant Hinduism and the other Asian religions. He went to great pain to point out that yes, Muslims really do respect Jews: their problem is with the state of Israel and its policies, not Judaism. Sure enough, we discovered that the mosques in Haleb have Star of David symbols on the minarets and above the doors.

Incidentally, before we entered Syria, we realised that we would have a far easier time to call ourselves Christians rather than admit that, while we respect the beliefs of everyone, we personally think that all organised religion is claptrap. Of course Ali quickly saw through us. But so intertwined is he with his faith that he didn't seem able to grasp the concept of non-belief, so he labelled us 'nonpractising Christians'.

The highlight of the Christian Quarter was two 18th century houses, once private residences but now restored and converted into hotels and restaurants. Like the khans they had a central courtyard with a fountain and elaborately painted walls. Obviously they had been home to some very wealthy families.

We had hoped that the weather would be warm by the time we got this far south, but we have found that winters in the region can be vicious. Glenn's thin fleece wasn't warm enough and as he'd seen plenty of lovely thick jumpers in the souk, we asked Ali if we could stop and buy one. Ali found us a stall and Glenn tried on a couple and settled on a style he liked. The Jumper was available in two different colour options and when Glenn asked Isla's advice on which one he should buy, Ali remarked “Who says European women are repressed?!" (This is very interesting, because the West thinks that Muslim women are repressed, but Muslims think exactly the same of western women, who they see as being 'forced' by society to go out unveiled and wearing make-up, for men to ogle over. Remembering the state of our home town in England on a Friday night, we thought that just maybe Islam has a point).

It was 15:00 and we were all hungry. We stopped at a food stall in the Christian market and Ali wanted us to try a cooked wheat patty served in a wrap, but when he ordered one of these for each of us the stall holder protested that it would be too heavy for our delicate western stomachs and refused to serve it to us. We had a lamb shawerma instead, and it was very tasty. Our fragile digestions coped with it admirably.

By this time we had managed to wear Ali out with all the walking around so he asked us if we would mind calling it a day and he dropped us back at our hostel. We sent a quick email to let Glenn's mum know that we were safely in Haleb, knowing that she would pass the news on to the rest of our families. Then, after a little rest we went to find somewhere to have dinner. Tourath House, one of the lovely converted Ottoman houses we had seen earlier, had given us their card and leaflet which advertised them as a 'Hotel and Restaurant' so we decided to go there. Unfortunately the advertised 'Restaurant' wasn't quite open yet. So we went two doors down to the similar Sisi House. It was a lovely setting and the local cuisine was excellent and very cheap.

It was quite late by the time we headed back to the hostel, but we weren't the last to bed. The staff seemed to be having some kind of party, which went on into the night, long after we'd plugged our ears and dozed off.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006 Syria Syria / Turkey Turkey

Into the axis of evil™

We didn't see much play in the salon, but it sounds exciting. [IMG_0666]
Antakya bus station [Enlarge]

We had nothing planned for boxing day apart from our evening journey to the city in the south of Turkey called Antakya or Hatay (it can't seem to decide which name to use, but anyway, it's the Biblical city of Antioch). From there we would be taking the overnight bus which would see us arriving in Aleppo, Syria some time in the morning. As it had snowed during the night and was still snowing (pity the people doing the mountain hike that day), we thought we would spend the day in the warm uploading our photos to flickr. Up to the point where we left İstanbul we had found enough free internet access to keep up to date with the photos and the blog, but now we were in the sticks we hadn’t been near a computer for over a week. We were in the internet café for so long that the owner eventually gave us a free glass of tea.

Having fully caught up, we returned to the Cappadocia Palace hotel at 15:15 ready for our transfer to the bus station. Yuki drove us down the hill to the bus station, and with the snow and ice on the road we were glad we hadn't walked. The following is what the Yuki tours guy had told us would happen next:

  • Catch the 16:00 bus from Ürgüp to Adana, arriving at something like 20:00. He gave us a pair of handwritten tickets for this leg.
  • Someone would be waiting for us at Adana, to give us tickets and show us where to catch the bus to Antakya. It would leave at 22:00 and arrive at 23:30.
  • Someone would be waiting for us at Antakya, to give us tickets and show us where to catch the bus to Aleppo. It would leave at 00:00 and arrive at something like 08:00.

This bore no resemblance to the itinerary we had been given by Hayden in İstanbul (for a start, he said we would go via Kayseri rather than Adana), but the Yuki man was insistent that everything would be fine, this was better and faster, and there was "no problem". Again those two words. We had no real option but to go with it and trust that it would work out. Here is what actually happened next.

Catch the 16:00 bus from Ürgüp to Adana, arriving at something like 20:00.

We went into the office and walked up to the Nevşehir bus company desk to ask about the 16:00 bus to Adana. "No bus" came the response. "Servis to Nevşehir, then bus to Adana." He refused to answer any questions about when the next servis would be leaving for Nevşehir, again saying "no problem". Unable to debate in Turkish we just had to wait it out, and eventually after much confusion a minibus pulled up and the man pointed at it and said "Nevşehir" so we got in.

We arrived at Nevşehir at about 16:45 and found out that the next bus to Adana was the 17:00. We now had no idea whether we were on track or not, and we were a bit worried because our changeover times didn't have a great deal of slack in them. Nevertheless it looked like we would be OK to get to Adana for 20:00.

Someone would be waiting for us at Adana, to give us tickets…

Because of the snow and ice our bus was badly delayed and we actually arrived at Adana an hour late at 21:00. However, since our bus out of Adana was not until 22:00, we were relieved that things seemed to be working out OK, just as we had been promised. And then it started going very wrong. There was nobody waiting at Adana to meet us. We walked around the coach and stood in the bay for twenty minutes or so, but it was obvious that we were not going to be met. We heard a voice from a nearby coach shouting "Hatay! Antakya!" (these are the same place, remember). This was where we needed to be so maybe it was just a matter of getting on. The steward was very happy to see us and showed us to our seats, but he spoke no English. He got out a pad and wrote "24.00" on it. We waved our itinerary and vouchers at him, and insisted that we had already paid, but of course this meant nothing. He wasn't expecting us, and if he was going to take us to Antakya, he wanted payment. So we got off the bus again and watched as it drove out of the station. The last leg of the journey had been with the Nevşehir bus company, so in desperation we went in search of the Nevşehir desk. Maybe they would know what was going on. They didn't. Our itinerary and vouchers from Hayden in İstanbul meant nothing to them.

Now we were pretty pissed off and out of options. Throughout the journey through Turkey, we would have saved a fortune and had a much easier time if we had bought our own tickets and made our own way. We could have bought all the tours locally, again much cheaper. We were much more annoyed that we had been so badly ripped off by Hayden in İstanbul and belived his crap about "don't worry, it always works out", than we were about being stranded in a vast unknown bus station with night approaching, hundreds of miles from where we needed to be.

We got out the mobile and rang Yuki Tours. It being 21:30, nobody answered. Remembering that the owner of the Cappadocia Palace Hotel was also the owner of Yuki Tours, we rang there. We managed to communicate the problem to them and they promised that someone would call us back. Sure enough, someone did, and he told us to find the office of the 'HAS Tours' bus company, and ask them to phone the Cappadocia Palace Hotel. A way forward at last. We found HAS, but could we convince the man behind the desk to make a long distance phone call to the other side of Turkey on the say so of a couple of backpackers who spoke no Turkish? Of course not. He flatly refused. So we took his card and called the Cappadocia Palace again to tell them to phone him.

Over the next few minutes much animated negotiation went on over the phone between Yuki Tours and HAS. Eventually the HAS man said "come". We followed him to the Nevşehir desk—they were the only bus company with offices in both Ürgüp and Adana, so they were going to be the intermediary for what was about to happen. After a lot more gesticulating and speaking on the phone, the Nevşehir man gave some money to the HAS man. The HAS man told us to come back at 23:00, and he would give us a ticket on their 23:15 bus to Antakya. Presumably Yuki would sort it out with Nevşehir in their Ürgüp office. Whatever.

It was 10pm. We had an hour to kill, and we now knew we were going to have exactly the same problem at Antakya. We decided to phone Hayden on the mobile number he'd given us. Amazingly, he answered. He confirmed what we'd suspected: that Yuki should have given us cash or vouchers for the buses all the way to Aleppo. He said he'd call them and make sure we would be OK at Antakya.

We found a warm place to sit in the waiting room and Glenn went off to find out where the bus to Antakya would be leaving from, leaving Isla to guard the bags. He hadn't been gone a minute when a man in a chair opposite Isla suddenly clutched his chest, fell forwards onto the floor and began to have some kind of seizure. Through the glass wall of his office next door a transport policeman hesitated and then seemed to resign himself to the fact that this probably was part of his job and came through to help. A few other men clustered round the man and tried to restrain him. After a few minutes someone came in with half an onion to hold under the poor man's nose. In spite of their help he came round after a few minutes and seemed to refuse any other assistance. Glenn had come back, talking on the mobile, half way through the performance and Isla admitted that she was so on edge she had at first thought it was some kind of scam. Late night bus travel makes you very cynical.

Glenn was on the phone to Hayden's boss, who had obviously been on the line to Yuki. He was very sorry and promised he would sort everything out. There was a direct bus from Adana to Aleppo, so he would get us a ticket on that and we wouldn't even need to change at Antakya. He told us to go back to the HAS desk and wait there—he was about to phone them. There was some more behind the scenes negotiation and we were given a paper ticket to Antakya and YTL 15 to buy a ticket to Aleppo from there. We protested that we had been assured we would get a ticket all the way to Aleppo, at which the HAS man told us that Hayden's boss was wrong, there were only direct buses in the summer. We would be changing at Antakya after all, and, even better, we'd be arriving into Antakya at 02:00 and the bus out was not until 09:00.

There then followed a night bus experience pretty similar to the previous one.

At 02:15, the coach dropped us outside Antakya Otogar. We walked through the freezing night into the concourse. The place was deserted and almost everything was closed, but there was someone at the HAS desk. We wanted to buy our ticket to Aleppo with the 15 Lira we'd been given at Adana, so that at least we would know that we were going to be on the 09:00 bus out. The man sitting behind the HAS desk was wrapped in a blanket, and had an electric heater on behind him. Another man was lurking close by. We asked about the bus to Aleppo. The man behind the desk didn't seem to speak English, but the lurking one did, and his face fell. "Border closed—festival of Eid al-Adha." He would have fooled us but for the fact that he then tried to persuade us that although the border to Aleppo was closed, he knew a man who could get us across by taxi—for a consideration, of course: 70 US dollars (GBP 36). By now we had realised that the man at the HAS desk was just some sort of squatter who wanted to use their heater, and we managed to get the lurking man to admit that the HAS desk would open for business at 07:00. He told us that we were wasting our time, they would only confirm what he was telling us. We didn't believe it (even Ayala Travel in İstanbul wouldn't be so incompetent as to sell us a tour of Syria that we couldn't actually take, surely?) so we decided to sit the night out and wait. We told him we would think about it and would get back to him at 07:00.

There was no warm waiting room at Antakya—the seats were all in the freezing cold concourse. We found a seat as far away from the fierce draught from the main door as we could. We zipped up our coats and pulled on our hats and gloves. At about 03:00 we were approached by a man with a HAS uniform on. What were we doing here? Why didn't we come upstairs to the café upstairs where it was warmer and we could drink some tea. We liked the sound of 'warmer'. When we got upstairs the HAS man disappeared, but another guy immediately pounced and asked if we would like to change some money. From one of his many pockets he pulled out a huge wad of notes in some sort of attempt to prove that he was serious. We did need some Syrian pounds, but not until we had a bus ticket and knew we were actually going to Syria. We told him "not yet—when we have a ticket" and he took this as an opportunity to bargain. His exchange rate improved. We said "really, not yet". Throughout the rest of the night he came over at regular intervals to try to convince us, and by the end of the night we actually looked forward to his visits because they broke the monotony. At 05:30 the owner of the café turned up for work and having tried to sell us some breakfast, made it clear that if we weren't planning to eat or drink, we were no longer welcome in his café. So we walked back downstairs to the concourse. The place was definitely beginning to come to life, but the HAS desk was still not populated by proper HAS people. We hung around near the desk trying to get some warmth from the heater at the back of the office. Finally, at 06:58, the desk opened and we were straight in there with our money. Of course the border was not closed, and in a matter of minutes we had our tickets. The money changer was waiting for us because we had told him that we would change some money once we had a ticket. He honoured the rate he had promised us, which was actually much better than we would have got at a proper booth. OK, it could have been funny money but we had seen him getting plenty of business with locals through the night, and we only wanted a little to get us started in Syria. Ticket bought and money in the pocket, by now the sun had risen and we only had the small matter of two hours more to kill, so we bought some Doritos for breakfast and went to the back of the bus station where the sun was coming in through the windows. We stood in the sunlight to thaw out and eat our breakfast.

At 09:15 we discovered that the transport to Aleppo was a minibus rather than a coach, but minibuses are actually better for crossing borders in because the waiting around for the other passengers to get the passports stamped and luggage searched is much less. Our fellow passengers were a Turkish mother and daughter and two Syrian men. After a while we arrived at the sprawling border crossing complex, which was also a building site as they are doing some major renovations.

As we arrived at Turkish customs, a border guard walked over to the minibus and our driver got out. He came round to the side door, and pulled a crate of bottled water from under Isla's seat. He handed it to the guard, who walked away happy. No words were exchanged and it seemed that this was HAS's way of ensuring that we had a nice easy border crossing. Contraband water!

Then at Turkish passport control we got out and queued at a window for our exit stamp. A man pushed us in at the front of the queue and then wanted some baksheesh for the privilege. He got one of our last Turkish coins and seemed pleased with it.

No-man's land consisted of about a mile of countryside and included at least one abandoned village. It also contained thousands of lorries queuing up to enter Turkey. They lined both sides of the road, nose to tail, and as we turned the final corner before reaching the duty free shops, the queue opened out into a four-wide stream of lorries who were queuing up to be allowed to enter the main queue! Throughout no-man's land there were mountains of rubbish, and the remains of several camp fires. The lorry drivers must have been there for days or weeks.

Our minibus's next stop was at Duty Free, followed by another at Syrian passport control. The sign on the Syrian building said 'Post Office', but the driver told us that was where we needed to be so we went in and up to the counter. There was no queue at the 'foreigners' window and the official behind the desk took Glenn's passport and gave him a small blue form to fill in. It asked exactly the same questions as the visa application form had. Obviously they wanted to make sure that they got the same answers as they had done previously, or maybe they just don't have a joined-up database. When Glenn had completed his form, the official stamped it, and the visa. Then he took Isla's passport and gave her a form. While she was filling it in, the man got bored, and gestured for her to pass it through the window to him, only partially completed. He stamped it and said she could take it away and fill the rest in later! We would need the blue forms when we left the country. With our passports and forms we got back on the bus.

Another box of bottled water changed hands at Syrian customs and we drove through without any checks.

And then we were inside the Axis of Evil. It didn't seem very evil, although it did look and feel different from Turkey. Firstly, the soil is very red and there are olive trees planted everywhere. Secondly, the moment we crossed the border the two Syrian men on the bus suddenly became very friendly and started talking to us in pretty good English. They were working in Turkey, but were going home for the festival of Eid al-Adha, which would be happening for four of the days that we were spending in Syria. They were very happy to be going home for a while. The final difference we noticed immediately was that the bus driver turned into a horn-honking, headlight flashing, death-wish overtaking maniac, which seems to be the Syrian way of driving. At every new country we have been in, the driving standard has made the previous country seem like a model of consideration and mild manners. We stopped at the first fuel station we came to and the driver filled up with petrol which cost a third of the Turkish price (diesel is a tenth the price). After 40 km on fast, four-lane road we arrived in Aleppo. We fought our way through the traffic and finally came to a stop in a square of tarmac called the bus station. Yet again we were due to be met by someone, and for a change we actually were! Hayden's boss had clearly been on the phone. Our contact walked us round the corner to the Spring Flower Hostel, showed us to our room and suggested that we take a shower, have a rest for an hour or so and then come upstairs to the roof terrace to have some tea and to meet our guide. We liked Syria already.

Map of Day 032

Day 032
Urgup to Aleppo

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006 Turkey Turkey

Christmas in Cappadocia

Flintstones Cafe, Cappadocia [Enlarge]

Loaded into two Yuki Tours minibuses, our group headed off into the heart of Cappadocia for the first of two one-day tours. It was cold but bright and despite the lack of sleep we were feeling surprisingly energetic. We stopped in a parking area, got out and clustered around Ahmet, our guide. He explained about how the geology of the area had created the right conditions for 'fairy chimneys' to form. Every time the ancient volcanoes in the area erupted, they left a layer of ash, which set like cement when it rained. Occasionally, lumps of hard basalt were thrown out of the volcanoes too, so they are spread through the ash layers like raisins in one of Glenn's gran's famous Scottish scones. Over millions of years the relatively soft ash eroded and blew away, but when the erosion uncovered a lump of basalt, it protected the ash beneath it, so a column formed, topped by the piece of basalt. Eventually, thousands of columns were formed over the whole region. Some are so big that they were hollowed out and made habitable.

Over the centuries Cappadocian cave dwellings have been home to many different peoples. They must have been very fit, judging by the amount of climbing up walls that they had to do, using precarious hand and foot holds. Some of the caves were used as churches, and we saw many with the original tenth century wall frescos in pretty good condition.

After lunch we made a stop in another pottery 'workshop' for what we had by now termed a shopportunity. The Lonely Planet guidebook had warned that organised tours included these un-advertised and unwanted stops and that the guide would be on serious commission, but we enjoyed watching the demonstration and looking round the showroom at the beautifully crafted pieces. This particular workshop, Chez Galip, specialises in replica Hittite wine jugs; though it's hard to say what was more amazing: the workmanship or the price tags! One had a starting price (negotiable, of course) of YTL 15000 (GBP 5374 / USD 10399).

After the final stop of the day, the five storey Moulin Rouge fairy chimney café, we headed back to the Cappadocia Palace Hotel. We were so tired that we went to bed immediately, at about 19:15. We fell asleep with the light on and woke up at 23:10. We set the alarm for seven the next morning, brushed our teeth and went straight back to sleep.

Christmas morning, and as we tucked in to the excellent breakfast in the hotel we pitied the latest crowd of overnight travellers who had arrived early in the morning expecting a shower and breakfast, just as we had the previous day. While friends and family back home would just have been waking up to find out what Santa had brought them, we were setting off on a hike through the Cappadocian hills led by our enthusiastic guide, Şükür, to see the red valley and the rose valley. Again it was very cold with patches of ice on the ground, but the sun was even stronger than the previous day and walking uphill we took off our hats and gloves and unzipped our coats.

The views were breathtaking. Spending Christmas day amongst the spectacular scenery of Cappadocia with cobalt skies and blinding sunshine certainly made missing the family gathering a little easier to bear. Also the fact that 25th December is in every way a completely normal day in Turkey.

Our next stop was a village where the houses had been built into the cliffs. Over many years the Turkish and Greek villagers had extended the naturally occurring caves both by digging further back into the rock and by extending them outwards using the excavated stone. In addition to houses there was a mosque and a church. Difficulties between Turkey and Greece eventually reached a stage where the governments agreed to conduct a 'population exchange'. Greeks living in Turkey were forced out, and vice versa. The Greek cave houses and their church were abandoned. Not long afterwards, in 1939, a rockfall prompted the Turkish government to declared the village unsafe. The villagers moved a few hundred metres down the valley and, using stone from their old homes, constructed new houses. The buildings that now remain intact are those of the Greek villagers. These were untouched by the Turkish who felt that it was disrespectful to demolish someone else's home.

After lunch we visited a fascinating underground city. The location of Cappadocia, between the various civilisations which have come and gone, means that it has been prone to hostile invasion for centuries. Exploiting the naturally occurring caves beneath them, local people built an underground city capable of supporting 4000 people, storing their food and housing their animals, for three months. Only ten percent of the city has been excavated so far, but that extended for hundreds of metres through twisting, narrow passages and up and down stairs.

On the way out of the underground city there was another shopportunity: a collection of touristy souvenir stalls. One sold every variety of blue glass evil eye charm and someone asked the origin of the eye. It appears that all Arabs are suspicious of blue eyes, believing that they have the power to put a curse on you. This may date back to crusader times, but in Şükür's version of the story it went back to pre-Christian times when Turks believed in sky-gods and earth-gods. The different shades of blue in the lucky charm signify the sky and earth in the day and night, and the amulet stops someone putting the evil eye on you. Isla's eyes are blue already so we figured she's got inbuilt protection, but Glenn haggled for a one Lira evil eye key fob, which he figured might help him out when we get to the Syrian border.

After a quick visit to Pigeon Valley for a picturesque view we had a final stop to make. Yes, another shopportunity, this time at a stoneware workshop where we had a demonstration of onyx turning and a look round the associated jewellery showroom.

Our final booked excursion in Turkey was scheduled for that evening and we were so tired that we nearly didn't bother going: a Turkish Night Show. The Dervishes whirled; the Raki flowed; it was cheesy but harmless until the audience participation part. We exercised our British reserve and left the folk dancing to our South Korean companions. After re-enacting a 'traditional courtship dance' the dancers, audience and band conga'd their way out of the hall and we sipped our Raki and enjoyed the peace, along with a few others (presumably also British) who had stayed behind. It couldn't last for ever, of course. Eventually the sound of the band grew louder and louder and they burst back in.

There was only one possible way to round off a Turkish Night Show. The lights dimmed and the audience grew quiet as the belly dancer descended from the ceiling in a neon-lit cage. Her performance included the ubiquitous booty-shaking and men from the audience were encouraged to tuck paper currency into her underwear. Not sure how belly dancing fits into modern Muslim society, but it was a memorable way to spend Christmas day night. Wonder what we'll do next year?

Sunday, December 24, 2006 Turkey Turkey

Overnight bus to Ürgüp

Ahmet refused to tell us when he would be transferring us to the bus station at Denizli for our 21:00 bus, even though we asked him at least three times. "No problem, no problem" was the stock reply. This is a very common reply in Turkey, and true enough, there usually is no problem if you just trust that things will happen in the right order.

We were drinking tea and talking to a Canadian-Filipino guy (who owns a guest house in British Columbia and has some sort of exchange programme going on with Ahmet in Pamukkale) when Ahmet suddenly said "Right! We go now". We were bundled into a Renault Clio driven at usual Turkish speed by our guide from earlier in the day, along with the Japanese guy (the one who had lost his passport earlier) and his girlfriend. We found out that we were all going to the same hotel, the Cappadocia Palace cave hotel in Ürgüp. We arrived at Denizli, just as Ahmet had promised, with "no problems". The bus turned up at 20:45 and we got on. We had the front seats on the other side from the driver. Usually this is a good thing as you get a better view, but on a night bus it means: headlights in your eyes all night, second hand cigarette smoke from the driver and steward all night, weird Turkish pop music from the stereo that the driver presumably has on to keep himself awake all night, and cold air up your trousers every time the door opens, yep—all night. And no legroom because of the barrier thing in front of you. Not that we are complaining, but suffice to say that we got no proper sleep at all.

The experience was very surreal. You try to sleep and the rocking, strange music and hypnotic lights from cars coming the other way send you into a sort of trance. Eventually you are so tired that you start dozing and waking up every few minutes, unsure of whether you've been asleep or how much time has passed. We woke up at around 03:00 in the large town of Konya. As we came round, we were doing a U-turn on a dual carriageway. When we finished the manoeuvre the driver opened the door and the steward jumped out, and the driver shouted something at him (probably instructions on which brand of cigarettes he wanted the steward to buy). But then the door closed and we drove off, through two sets of traffic lights, and then stopped again at the side of the road. Then the driver got off too. We stayed there for at least 20 minutes watching boy racers doing burn-outs on the other side of the road and listening to the snoring of a large Turk behind us, before the driver and steward finally got back in and we drove off. We still don't know what it was all about (or even whether it was a strange communal dream we both had, but we both definitely remember it happening).

At 05:15 we were again brought round from our strange half-sleep by the driver saying "Ürgüp—off here. Servis!" This wasn't in the script, as we thought our bus went all the way to Ürgüp, arriving at 08:00. Glenn went to the back of the bus to wake the two Japanese backpackers (they seemed to have no trouble sleeping) and tell them that we were being thrown out.

The engine of the servis (mini-bus) was off, and the bus was freezing cold. It had a thermometer on the dashboard which was reading –8°C (17°F) and warming up by a degree every few minutes. This confirmed to us that the temperature inside the bus was indeed minus 8. There was no sign of a driver. After 20 minutes or so, the door flew open and someone shouted in "Ürgüp! Otobus!" and pointed at the coach which we had got off! (It was still at the bus station for a stopover.) We were not particularly impressed but we complied as we just wanted to be in the warm. When we walked over to the coach however, we saw that another coach had pulled in beside it and it had a sign for Ürgüp in the window. We got in to the haven of warmth and luxury and shortly afterwards it pulled out of the bus station.

The journey to Ürgüp was quite short and we arrived at the small, deserted bus station (actually a square of tarmac) just after sunrise. There was no sign of our transfer, Yuki Tours, and we resigned ourselves to another trek through another unknown town to our hotel. However just after we got off the coach a minibus hurtled in and stopped alongside us. It had a 'Yuki' sign stuck in the windscreen. Before we knew it we were in the warmth of the Cappadocia Palace hotel lobby.

It was 06:45 and we had a tour of North Cappadocia starting at 09:30. Before we had booked the tour, we were promised by Hayden in İstanbul that we would be able to check in to the hotel at this point, take a shower, change our clothes, have some breakfast and maybe even lie down for a short while after the overnight bus. It really would be "no problem". This was not how it turned out. The hotel was full so we couldn't check in (the previous guests in our room wouldn't be checking out until 10:30), and breakfast was most definitely not included until the next morning. If we wanted some, it would be 6 Lira each (GBP 2.17 / USD 4.26). Oh, and we were free to use the toilet in the lobby if we wanted to. Have a nice day.

Christmas Eve and no room at the inn. How apt.

The toilet was actually large and very clean and we were able to wash, change our clothes and clean our teeth. On principle we refused to pay for the breakfast so our first meal of the day consisted of a large bag of Doritos each from a shop round the corner. At 09:15 we came back to the hotel, tired and a little battered, but ready to start our tour.

Map of Day 029

Day 029
Pamukkale to Urgup

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Saturday, December 23, 2006 Turkey Turkey

Pamukkale and Hierapolis

It's not snow, it's calcium deposits from the mineral-rich spring water. [IMG_0576]
Pamukkale travertines [Enlarge]

We were glad to leave Jimmy's Place after three nights there. Local tour company Grand Wonders were again responsible for transferring us to the small town of Pamukkale, a few hours inland from Selçuk. Again they lived down to our low expectations of them. Instead of parting with some cash and buying coach tickets for us (which is what we had paid the agent in İstanbul for), they had a big enough group to make it worth their while stuffing us into their own small, nasty minibus with a non-functioning ventilation system and a crazy driver. We would like to write about the fantastic Turkish scenery that we passed on the way to Pamukkale, but we didn't see any of it because the bus windows steamed up after five minutes. We were dropped off at the Koray Hotel in the early afternoon and the owner, Ahmet, offered us some tea and advised us to go later on to his other hotel up the road if we wanted dinner, because that one had central heating!

'Pamukkale' means 'cotton fortified place', or 'cotton castle'. The village is on the side of a hill and takes its name from the area in the flat valley below it which is in Turkey's cotton-growing area. And also from its prime attraction, the famous white calcium travertines (pools) above the village which look like cotton, according to our guide.

After checking in to the hotel we took a walk through the village and out into the countryside where we found some good views of the Travertines. We were going to go up and see them the next day so we headed back into the village and had a look around. After so long in towns and cities it was nice to be in a real Turkish village, even though it was a village clearly used to getting thousands of tourists every day in the summer. We understood why Ahmet had suggested we eat in his other hotel—there were few alternatives open at this time of year.

Later on we walked up the road to the other hotel (the Kale) where we found Ahmet's Japanese sister-in-law looking after a baby lamb which was asleep in a large flower pot. We made ourselves at home in the lounge and watched some satellite TV. BBC World (24 hour news which seems to repeat itself every five minutes) was the only English-language station available. After a week of news blackout we were surprised to learn about all the problems the Christmas travellers were having with fog at Heathrow Airport. Christmas, and London, seemed a very long way away.

We discovered that the Japanese lady was the manager and chef of the Kale Hotel, and her menu featured Japanese and Korean dishes as well as the usual stock of kebabs. Although we have tried so far to eat local food, it just seemed that it was meant to be to eat a Japanese meal in a small Turkish village with a sheep in a flower pot for our only company. So we ordered our first ever miso soup, with chicken, rice and sweet omelette. It was excellent.

We knew that the festival of Kurban Bayramı (the Turkish name for Eid ul-Adha) was coming a week later on 30th December. For this festival, Muslims who can afford to do so sacrifice their best domestic animals (usually sheep, but also camels, cows, and goats) as a symbol of Ibrahim's (Abraham's) sacrifice. We had been told to expect blood in the streets, literally. We put two and two together and decided that the lamb in the flower pot had a short future ahead of him. In the end we plucked up the courage to ask the Japanese lady whether he was for the chop, and she was aghast. "No, he is our pet!" We were however invited to her barbecue if we were still around on the 30th.

Next morning we were scheduled to visit the travertines. Ahmet drove us and a small group of Chinese tourists over to the neighbouring town, where we picked up a Japanese man before returning to Pamukkale. On the way back we stopped at a view point, before parking at the base of the travertines and ambling up the hill. It became clear that Ahmet was stalling for time. His confidence, humour and enthusiasm for the travertines were unfortunately not matched by his knowledge of what they actually were, nor by his English speaking ability. The Chinese were struggling to understand him in what was to them all a foreign language. One of the Chinese ladies asked him if he was the tour guide and he admitted that our guide had been held up. Apparently another member of our party had been on the night bus to Pamukkale and had arrived to find that his passport had been stolen from his bag during the night. Our real guide was with him trying to help him sort it out.

After a while the guide turned up (without the passport theft victim, who was on the phone to his embassy) and the tour proper began. The travertines are formed by the mineral-rich water from a warm volcanic spring leaving deposits of white calcium on the hillside. Over thousands of years they have covered the hillside with shallow pools. You used to be able to swim in the warm water, but after a lot of damage was done after tourism took off in the 1980s they are now off limits. They were also dry, as the Turkish authorities have installed plumbing systems to allow them to divert the water at will. Over winter they turn the water off to prevent algae from taking hold and discolouring the white pools. It was understandable but a bit disappointing.

The Romans discovered the hot springs and built the city of Hierapolis right next to them. The second phase of our day included a guided tour of the ruins, which were in many ways even better than Efes (Ephesus). The tour guide learned that one of the Chinese people worked for a large hotel chain in Frankfurt, and on hearing this he immediately started giving himself a job interview!

After the Hierapolis tour we had lunch in a small corner of a vast and empty restaurant, before visiting a silver 'workshop' as an unadvertised bonus. We had been introduced to these 'bonus visits' at Efes, whereby you get taken to some workshop or other, which is actually the front for a large showroom, and of course the guide is on a nice commission. At Efes it had been pottery (the demonstration was actually very good, as was the quality of the plates); and here it was silver jewellery. Again we didn't buy anything.

Our final stop was the red spring, hotter than the white ones and red because of iron in the water. This was beautiful but very small, and completely surrounded by souvenir stalls. The sun was setting when we were there and we managed to get a couple of good photos of the spring. (See also all our Pamukkale and Hierapolis photos here).

We returned to the hotel to wait for our first overnight bus, to Ürgüp in Kapadokya (Cappadocia). We aren't particularly looking forward to sitting on a bus all night trying to sleep, then having another tour tomorrow, but we have been told that they are fine and we will have no trouble sleeping. We'll see.

Map of Day 028

Day 028
Selcuk to Pamukkale

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Friday, December 22, 2006 Turkey Turkey

'Jimmy's Place', or 'How not to run a hotel'

Jimmy's Place, also confusingly known as one of the two Artemis Guest Houses in Selçuk, at first glance looks like a great example of good-value backpacker accommodation. It has internet access, bar, restaurant, reliable hot water, central heating, satellite TV in the lobby and a large travel library. What more could you want?

Well, we could want some of those things to be actually present, that's what. Maybe the place is great in the summer, but in December it should be avoided. When we turned up the place was in total darkness apart from the light of the TV and the lit cigarettes of the guy on duty and his friend. After finishing a phone call to his mate while we waited at reception, the duty man ambled over and checked us in. Except he didn't seem to know how to check someone in, because in copying down our names from our passports he put Glenn's name down as "British Citizen". [My friends call me Brit, but you can call me Mr Citizen—Glenn.]

The guy's mate came with us to our room and together the three of us fumbled through the darkness to find it. When we finally got the door unlocked, the lights wouldn't work. After a few minutes our guide realised that he needed one of those card things that hotels have to make the lights come on so he left us in the hall while he fetched one from downstairs.

The room was extremely cold. The central heating we were promised was there (in that there was physically a radiator in the room), but it was switched off. We went back to reception to complain about the polar conditions upstairs and we noticed that the lobby was also at the same temperature, so we weren't hopeful of getting a resolution. We asked the guy to switch on the central heating and he said firmly "No". No room for negotiation then. He did however offer us a remote controller for our air conditioning unit, which he said could also make hot air. After about ten minutes we had succeeded in making hot air come out of the aircon unit (mounted high on the wall), and for the rest of our three-night stay the top three feet or so of the room were lovely and warm while the space we actually occupied remained cold. We could at least dry the clothes once we had rigged up the washing line in the rafters.

The next morning we decided to take a shower and were not confident that the water would be hot. It did however come through lukewarm after five minutes or so. We spoke to an American guy who had not thought to complain about the lack of heating (so wasn't given a controller for his aircon unit), and had not let his shower run long enough. He had a very bad stay.

Other reasons not to come here in the off-season:

  • At least three-quarters of the lighting circuits in the place seem to be disabled.
  • The internet access is very expensive, and when we tried it, not working.
  • The travel library is useless because it is locked. When you track down the only member of staff with a key, he insists that you cannot take your chosen book out of the lobby (which is dark and cold, remember).
  • The satellite TV is only for friends of the duty staff to tune to strange Turkish music channels, with the volume turned up.
  • When you order a meal in the restaurant, the prices advertised in the menu will be doubled—after you have eaten of course—because (for Isla's meal): "The chef had trouble buying the ingredients at the market" and (in Glenn's case): "The chef decided to make it extra-special". We made it clear that we would be paying the originally advertised price.
  • Although there will probably be a few other guests staying in the hotel, you will not be able to meet them because of the situation with the lobby. They will likely be in their room wrapped in blankets.

We provide this post as a service to other backpackers, not because Jimmy's Place was particularly bad compared to other hostels (they all have their quirks), but because it was claiming to be something it was not. Jimmy: if you are not prepared to offer your advertised service in the off season, you should close your hotel until the spring.

Thursday, December 21, 2006 Turkey Turkey

Two visits to Ephesus

We briefly had the place to ourselves [Enlarge]

Our tour resumed the morning after arriving into Selçuk and this time we were with a group of about 12 for a trip to Efes (the Roman city of Ephesus), which was much better. Grand Wonders Tours even turned up, which was more than they had managed the previous evening.

Efes is about 3km out from Selçuk town centre so the minibus trip there only took a few minutes. The ruins themselves are incredible—you literally can walk down Roman streets, go in to the houses and temples and sit on Roman toilets. Our guide was good fun but she didn't know very much outside of her script.

For us there were two highlights: the Celsus library, whose tall facade has been reconstructed from the original pieces; and the huge open-air theatre. In fact we liked Efes so much that we went back there by ourselves the next day and sat watching the world go by in the top seats of the theatre. We could see for miles around and we discovered that the ruins are right next to a skydiving centre which took us back to our days of throwing ourselves out of aeroplanes (we weren't tempted to have another go).

We also visited the Artemis Temple, one of the original seven wonders of the world, but now a bit flat and pretty disappointing after Efes. The last standing column had a birds' nest on top and the flooded ruins were home to a flock of geese. Finally we had a look round the excellent Ephesus Museum in Selçuk, which is where most of the valuable bits and pieces from the excavations have ended up.

Our Efes photos are here.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006 Turkey Turkey

Down the Aegean coast

And what a movie it was. This huge fibreglass animal was given to the town of Çanakkale after filming finished in September 2004. It now lives on the harbourside. [IMG_0516]
Replica horse from the movie "Troy" [Enlarge]

We decided to book a tour from İstanbul around some of the sites of western and central Turkey (the north and east are too cold at this time of year). Also, sporting our shiny Syrian visas we added a seven day tour of Syria for good measure. This will allow us to kick back and take in some sights without having to worry about booking our own travel and accommodation all the time.

Hayden the travel agent from Ayala Travel put together (suspiciously quickly) a complete itinerary and, having paid, we got chain of little handwritten forms which we will give to each local tour guide on the way and they will swap them for bus tickets, tours and/or accommodation. That's the theory, anyway.

We were booked on the 12:30 bus to Çanakkale (pronounced Channack-alley) from the İstanbul main otogar (bus station). We turned up at the travel agent's office the required 15 minutes before our 11:00 transfer to the otogar. And there we waited until 11:45, which is when the service bus finally turned up. There then followed the mandatory white-knuckle ride through the Monday morning traffic, and we were deposited at our waiting coach with less than ten minutes to spare. We are learning to take this sort of thing in our stride—you always seem to get where you need to be on time. We noticed that the minibus had the almost universal Turkish 'evil eye' good-luck charm hanging from its rear-view mirror. These are eyes painted onto blue glass disks, and they are found in most vehicles in Turkey, and they bring their bearers good luck. We don't know exactly how they work, but they obviously do, because nobody in Turkey feels the need to wear a seatbelt.

Petrol is expensive in Turkey. It costs about the same as in the UK (YTL 2.7 per litre / GBP 0.99 per litre / USD 7.37 per US gallon) but GDP per capita is only a quarter that of the UK and a fifth that of the US. This means that car ownership is very limited. The rail network is not very extensive either, which means that there are a lot of buses. Every town has a bus station with buses to just about anywhere, and minibuses (Servis buses) to the local villages. Because there are lots of buses competition is high so the service is good and the prices are kept low.

We took a route south-west along the north shore of the Sea of Marmara, so we would need to take a ferry across the Dardanelles later on as the only two bridges are at İstanbul. Along the way the bus stopped often to pick up people from the side of the road. We were never sure how the bus knew where the people would be, or how the people knew which bus to flag down, but it seemed to work well. Actually, the bus never really stopped. What happened was that it slowed down just enough for the conductor to jump off (needing to break into a run when he landed), the new passenger to leap on, then the conductor—still running—to jump back on. It all happened in one fluid motion and took about a second and a half. Obviously if you live in the countryside in Turkey you get used to this!

It got dark before we arrived at the ferry port of Eceabat, and when we got there the ferry was just pulling into dock. We waited for 15 minutes or so and then the coach drove onto the ferry, which was basically a big, flat, open platform with a structure on top containing the bridge and a restaurant. We got out to have a quick look round and take a photo as we left Europe for the last time, but it was cold and dark so we got back onto the bus for the short crossing.

We were not sure how far away Çanakkale's otogar would be once we got to the other side, but in the end it didn't matter as we were turfed off the bus in the port and to our relief found a man from 'Hassle Free Tours' who was expecting us. Our slip of paper instructed him to "Make transfer to Maydos Hotel" so we were ready for another exciting minibus ride, but the 'transfer' actually turned out to be a 100 metre walk round the corner to the hotel. The guy who escorted us had a very bad limp despite being only in his late 20s, which we thought meant that maybe he had left his evil eye at home one day when he had gone for a drive.

The hotel was nice and we were tired so we decided to eat in the hotel restaurant, which was a strange glass-walled box on the seafront. We had a comfy bed with a full-sized duvet (luxury!) and a good shower and we set the alarm for our 07:30 trip to Troy the next morning.

In the morning we walked back around the corner to Hassle Free's office to meet our tour guide. Why the early start? Because the guide has a full-time job as a civil engineer and runs the tours before going to work! We wondered whether all of our tours would be done on the cheap like this, but the itinerary suggested that the others would be full days. The guide turned up with a minibus and driver, and we boarded and waited for the rest of the tour group. But almost immediately the guide slammed the door shut and we were off at full speed towards Troy. It seemed we were the only people booked on the tour. We were sat at the front of the minibus and the guide was sat right across the aisle in the other front seat, but she still decided to use her microphone to give us loads of information about Çanakkale and Troy. Apparently a 'Çanak' is a ceramic plate, and 'Kale' means 'fortified place'. So if it was a UK town it would be called Plateham or something.

It was 30km to Troy along a narrow, winding road. We could see the Gallipoli monuments in the distance across the Dardanelles, where we had come from the previous evening. As we pulled up in the car park it became clear that the place was deserted and this was serious off-season. And it started to drizzle. Nevertheless the tour was interesting as this was our first serious ruin (there are lots more to come). Our photos of Troy are here, and everything you could wish to know about the city can be found on Wikipedia.

The guide didn't manage to persuade us to buy the official guidebook, which was written by her father, but she did take away a book recommendation from Isla (Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad). By the way, Isla disagrees with the majority of the Amazon reviewers about this book! We finished our brief time in Çanakkale by walking along the sea front, where we found a huge replica Trojan horse on the harbourside. The horse was used in the film 'Troy' and Isla was disappointed not to find Brad Pitt still inside.

Our next bus was the 11:30 from Çanakkale to İzmir. We would need to change at İzmir for Selçuk, our next destination. We could see the bus coming in on the ferry and we waited under cover out of the rain for it to disembark. Our route took us down the beautiful Aegean Coast and we were amazed by the amount of new building going on. There are literally tens of miles of new houses and apartments lining the coast, filling the space between the road and the shore, and extending a mile or two inland. The coach company was different this time but the service was pretty much the same as before, even down to the running leaping steward and the strange cake thing we were given shortly after setting out. We arrived at İzmir after dark (İzmir is Smyrna, the birthplace of Homer—of Iliad fame, not Bart Simpson's dad). Yet again the GPS was a life saver as otherwise we would have had no idea that we were in the right city. We got off the bus at the huge otogar and a waiting man said "Selçuk?". When we replied that yes, we needed the bus for Selçuk he dashed off through the crowds and even Glenn had to walk fast to manage to keep up with him. The bus to Selçuk turned out to be a minibus, which gradually filled up over the next half an hour (why did we need to be route-marched there?) It set off with the driver's mate hanging out of the door shouting "SELÇUK-SELÇUK-SELÇUK!" across the otogar in the hope that he could sell the last remaining seat. There were no takers.

We had been given 12 Lira in cash by the travel agent at Çanakkale and told to give this to the guy in the minibus. He seemed happy with the amount as he worked his way through the bus collecting the fares. The journey to Selçuk was fairly short and uneventful and we arrived half an hour late into the otogar (cryptically described as "Notoriously hassley" by the Lonely Planet guide—we never did find out why). Our contact, this time from Grand Wonders tours, was nowhere to be seen and the man in the otogar office failed to contact him by phone. We were reminded of the travel agent Hayden in İstanbul who had told us not to worry, they always turn up. Nevertheless, Selçuk is a small town so we asked for directions to our hotel in a Lokum (Turkish Delight) shop (mental note: must return here) and walked to 'Jimmy's Place', aka the Artemis Guest House, our home for the next three days.

Map of Days 024-025

Days 024-025
Istanbul to Selcuk

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Monday, December 18, 2006 Turkey Turkey

Slowing down and doing the tourist thing

The cheesiest possible photo of İstanbul, but it had to be done. [IMG_0430]
Minarets at sunset [Enlarge]

Of course there's a lot more to do in İstanbul than dodging carpet sellers and negotiating visas and we've indulged in our fair share of touristic activities.

Aya Sofya: [photos] Also known as Hagia Sofia, and St Sophia Museum. This building started life as a Christian Church, but was converted into a Mosque in the early Ottoman era. In the process the Christian mosaics were plastered over and the building painted in Islamic style. It was made into a museum by Atatürk and restoration work is ongoing.

Yerebetan Sarnıcı: [photos] The Basilica Cistern is a vast underground chamber, constructed to provide the city of İstanbul with water. It has an amazing vaulted ceiling and some strange upside down statues of Medusa in the far corner. It's also famous for a scene in From Russia with Love where Sean Connery is escaping from some bad guy or other in a rowing boat.

Topkapı Sarayı: [photos] Home to generations of Sultans and Sultanas, this huge palace is the epitome of opulent living. Glenn decided that his next career should be 'Being a Sultan'.

We wanted to visit the Sultan Ahmet Camii (Blue Mosque) [photos] but unfortunately Glenn succumbed to a bout of the Sultan's Revenge which meant that he had to stay very close to a toilet for the last three days of our stay. In the end he has had to use some of our small supply of Pepto-Bismol to cork himself up for the long coach trip to Çanakkale.

Other than that, there has been much chilling out, drinking of tea, and eating of every variety of kebab. See the previous paragraph. We feel rested and ready for the next phase of our journey—a ten-day tour of Turkey followed by seven days in Syria.

Friday, December 15, 2006 Turkey Turkey

İstanbul scams

We've met a lot of Turkish people here and they have been almost universally friendly, welcoming and genuine. Also, most of them have wanted to help us to spend our money in their (or their brother's, uncle's or cousin's) carpet shop (or café, or travel agency, or…). But you soon learn to treat the endless sales approaches as they do: as pure sport. The tourists float past like fish in a stream, and they try to catch them. It's a fun game, and as long as both parties treat it as such, entertaining and often enlightening conversations can take place.

Unfortunately however, this city has its share of scumbags just like any other. Yesterday we were trying to get to the Syrian embassy by taxi before the embassy opened (so that we would have a chance of getting to the front of the queue for our visa before it closed 90 minutes later). We allowed our attention to wander for a second and we were robbed as a result. We made several key mistakes: we didn't check that the driver had zeroed the meter when we started the journey (he hadn't); we didn't have the right change for the fare (we only had a 50 Lira note, and we knew that the fare was going to be around 10 Lira); we allowed him to drop us off on an adjacent street and confuse us by reeling off walking directions for the last 100 metres in Turkish; and—most crucially—we didn't keep our eyes on the 50 Lira note as we handed it over. Because the meter hadn't been zeroed our 10 Lira journey was actually going to cost 18.80 Lira. A bit pissed off by this, but relieved that we were at least going to be reasonably on time at the embassy, we handed him the 50. An instant later he had palmed it, and it had magically turned into a 5. Instead of getting 31 Lira in change, we were now being asked for an additional 13. In the confusion he actually convinced us that we hadn't handed over a 50 (it is only painfully obvious after the event) and so we complied (paying the balance in Euros because we had only had the 50 Lira note to start with), even apologising to him. At the end of the exchange, and allowing for the correct fare, we had been robbed of about 25 quid (USD 49). Not the end of the world but deeply annoying that we had been so stupid. We just hope the b@stard enjoys his ill-gotten gains and that Allah forgives him.

Another widespread scam in İstanbul is much less harmful and almost good fun. The city is full of shoe-shine guys who carry a box containing their brushes, polishes and a little step. They wander around all day looking for shoes to shine. The going rate is around 1 to 2 Lira and the good guys are always busy. They do an excellent job, too. Unfortunately, as with the taxi drivers, there is also the less honest variety. They find it a bit too much of an effort to charge a fair price and do a decent job, so instead they prey on good-natured tourists and overcharge by a factor of ten times. The scam goes like this: a shoe-shine man is walking through the city, without a care in the world, his box hanging from his shoulder. Suddenly, his brush (his livelihood!) falls from the box but he doesn't notice, and walks on. Coincidentally, the brush has fallen right beside some tourists and they see it. They call the poor man back and hand him his brush. He is quite literally overcome with gratitude and he shakes them warmly by the hand. He then insists on giving them a free shoe-shine as thanks for their kindness. The shoe-shine takes quite a long time, during which he strikes up a conversation with them. It emerges that the poor man has had a run of bad luck, and (to cut a long story short) he has a sick child in hospital in Ankara and he can't afford to visit the child or pay the medical bills. The only thing he knows is shining shoes, and so even though this was promised as a free shoe-shine, would the customer mind please coughing up 10 Lira so that he can look after his family? (Remember a shoe-shine costs 1 to 2 Lira). The tourist is embarrassed, confused and in 25% of cases, hands over the money.

After a week in the city we had seen this identical scam done so many times in front of so many tourists, that we decided to do us some scumbag hunting! We had discovered by chance that the nearest supermarket to our hostel is a prime spot for this scam. It is on a reasonably quiet, small square into which several streets merge. Lots of tourists end up here and get a bit disorientated when they arrive at the square, so they stop to work out where they are. The perfect place for a bit of brush dropping. We decided to hang around here and see if we could get scammed. Amazingly within 30 seconds a brush dropped at our feet, as if to order. This was too easy! Instead of picking it up we followed our target to see what he would do when not called back. He sort of slowed down and started to take great interest in a nearby shop window. We slowed down too, refusing to pass him. Eventually, with an Oscar-worthy bit of acting he pretended to remember something that he had forgotten and turned round. He made the mistake of making eye contact with us and saw that Glenn was looking straight at him. Glenn smiled and asked him how many people were fooled by his little act. He beamed back and said in very good English "20 to 25 percent!" He was proud and not a bit remorseful. Glenn thanked him for the information and we went our separate ways.

It had been so easy, so we decided we had to get this on film. The next evening we came back to the same spot, with the camera set on Movie mode, held at waist level. Literally the instant we arrived on the street we were again picked up by a scammer. The video below shows how he moves into position right in front of us, checks over his shoulder three times, and deftly knocks the brush off its hook by tapping it against his leg. When it falls Glenn focuses the camera on the brush, daring him to come back and pick it up. In the top-right of the frame you can see that he stops quite quickly, hesitates as he realises he is rumbled, then decides to come back for it anyway. Right after the end of the video he did a big grin for the camera and walked off (we've cut this bit because we would violate YouTube's Terms of Service by showing his face without his permission). In the true İstanbul way, it was all very friendly and good sport.

Thursday, December 14, 2006 Turkey Turkey

The first interesting visa

During our couple of days in Sofia, Matt recommended visiting Syria and Jordan after Turkey so we did a bit of research into these very interesting countries. Syria, despite the US withdrawing its ambassador, is reckoned by the guidebooks and travel websites to be a safe country (as long as you take reasonable precautions, for example not walking down Damascus High Street late at night wearing a pro-Iraq war T-shirt and calling for the end of Islam).

We decided to go. Or at least, we decided to try to go. Getting a Syrian visa is apparently a non-trivial task. The official advice is to apply in your own country, but dig a little further and it turns out that you can get one at the Syrian Consulate in İstanbul. The only real killer is if you have ever been to Israel (or 'Occupied Palestine', as the Syrians call it), or ever intend to go there, you can forget it. Well, truthfully, we haven't, and we don't.

We took a taxi to Maçka Caddesi No 59 (all the way across town from the hostel), where we found a small office on the third floor purporting to be the Syrian Consulate. The queue was out of the door. Luckily we spied a small tray at the front of the queue which looked like it contained blank application forms, so Glenn pushed his way through to the front and picked a couple up. (One thing about the Turks: they don't really do ordered queuing, either on foot or in their vehicles. They push and they shove, which means that they're perfectly happy when somebody else does the same to them—it's all part of life.) When we looked at the forms it seemed we each needed: 1 completed application form, 2 passport photos, 1 letter of recommendation from our own embassy, 1 passport, and 45 Euros (GBP 30 / USD 59). We could drop all of this off between 09:30 and 11:00 in the morning and the visa would be ready that afternoon, all being well. So we made our way to the British Consulate to ask for a letter of recommendation.

The British Consulate is an altogether different place to the Syrian one. It occupies a huge colonial-style mansion set in grounds which fill an entire block of prime İstanbul real estate. This didn't surprise us, as one thing the British do seem to be good at is having impressive embassies. The consulate was attacked in 2003 and we found it now lying behind enormous fortifications with a security building where the gate presumably used to be. We had to have our passports checked, pass through a full-height solid metal turnstyle, surrender our bag and mobile phone, and pass through an airport-style security inspection. And that was just to get into the grounds! Once inside the complex we were pleased to see a huge, perfectly manicured, lush green English lawn in front of the building. It was reassuring to know that standards are being maintained. We had no further security to contend with to get into the building, and we received our letter of recommendation after a wait of about half an hour in return for a fee of YTL 125 (GBP 45 / USD 88 ). Because we are married we could get by with a joint letter, to our wallet's great relief. What does a letter of recommendation actually say? Basically, it says a few diplomatic niceties about how our embassy takes this opportunity to extend its highest esteem to your embassy, etc. etc., and then adds that our embassy has no objection to the Livett-Malte household visiting your country. Add an official stamp and that's it.

By now the Syrian consulate would be closed for the day, so we decided to return to the hostel to complete our forms. Next day, we took another taxi back to the consulate as early as possible. We beat the majority of the queue but there was a group of seven or eight Turks ahead of us. They were in a gaggle around the still-closed window but being British, we felt it proper to establish an orderly queue which anyone entering after us could join. The window opened a few minutes after 09:30 and the crowd in front of us immediately shoved all their passports and application forms through the window at the same time. The lady behind the window insisted that they try again, this time one at a time, which they did. One of them had neglected to answer the "Have you ever visited Occupied Palestine?" question, and his form was passed back through the window. He didn't seem to understand, so his friend explained. Either he had been to Israel and forgot to lie, or his friend had a sick sense of humour. We watched with great interest as the friend got out a pen and ticked the 'Yes' box, before handing the form back through the window. A commotion ensued between the staff inside the office, and the Turks outside it. After a moment the man's form was returned to him, he took a new blank form and went over to the desk to fill it in. Presumably he had been persuaded that his memories of a previous visit to Israel must have been delusions, and that he had never in fact set foot there. We don't know if he got his visa in the end.

After a while our turn came and we handed over our paperwork. The lady did a cursory check of the forms, and had a look through the passport, presumably for Israeli visas or stamps from border crossings between Israel and its neighbours. When she was happy she gave us a form and told us we needed to go out of the office, turn right and go into a conveniently located branch of the Turkish national bank and pay 90 Euros for the two visas. We did this (we managed to pay in Lira), and returned to the consulate with the receipt. Again, nobody minded when we pushed right in at the front brandishing our receipt. The lady swapped it for a slip of paper with our application number on it and told us to come back at 15:30.

We spent the intervening time wandering around a part of the city that we hadn't seen before, and decided to try our luck back to the embassy half an hour early, at 15:00. We expected to be turned away, and sure enough we found the door locked. But a man who had entered the building with us decided to ring the doorbell anyway, and it worked! A member of staff opened the door, and without saying a word, motioned for our slip of paper. A few moments later, again in complete silence he returned with our passports, handed them to us and closed the door. Did this mean we had been successful? We stood in the corridor and looked through our passports and found a full-page sticker in each one containing a flashy 15 day, single-entry visa to the Syrian Arab Republic. The whole process had been relatively straightforward.

Saturday, December 09, 2006 Turkey Turkey

Talking Turkey

Asian İstanbul [Enlarge]

We had always planned to slow our progress once we found ourselves somewhere cheaper than Western and Central Europe, so now that we've finally made it to İstanbul, keeping just ahead of the approaching winter, that's exactly what we have done. We had booked the first night in a decent hotel in advance, and intended to find somewhere cheap (but still nice) once we had arrived.

Once we'd taken the much longed-for bath and polished off the last three Mini Babybel (Real Great Cheese, All Wrapped Up!™) that we had bought as sustinence for the bus journey, we decided that we would like to extend the hotel booking for an extra night. This would allow us to wash our outer clothes and give them a chance to dry before moving on. We went down to reception and asked if we could have the same room we were in for an extra night, at the Expedia rate—bear in mind that the price on the wall behind the desk was 220 Euros and we'd paid half that. The man behind the desk went through the motions of checking his computer before saying curtly "No. We're full." Either Expedia screw their hotels so hard that they are just not allowed to match their rate, or he was willing to gamble that he could sell the room at the full price in the next 24 hours.

We asked the concierge where the nearest internet connection was. We were sent up to the 'business centre' where we found two PCs with free internet access, and a couple of overflowing ashtrays. Nice. We logged into Expedia and re-booked for another night at the same price: GBP 75 (USD 147). We decided to leave it until the morning before breaking the bad news to the concierge.

Rested and breakfasted we went to reception to let them know that the Livett booking for December 7th and the Livett booking for December 8th were both for us, and could they please be linked together on the computer. Otherwise we were going to have to pack up our stuff, check out at 12:00, sit in the lobby until 13:00, then check in again. The concierge (a different one than the previous night) promised to speak to reservations and ring us in our room, so we went up and waited. And waited. And, you guessed it, they didn't ring. Eventually Glenn went back down to ask and was told that it was fine. So we shut most of our stuff in the wardrobe and hoped it would still be there when we got back.

We still needed to find a long-term place which was much cheaper than the Dedeman. We had discovered during our taxi ride of the night before that our hotel was some way out of the city centre. We asked at reception if they had a city map and were given a 'shopping map'. Great if you want to know the way to the nearest Emporio Armani, but not a lot of good if you are trying to navigate the city by public transport or on foot. The GPS showed us that it was 5 km to where we wanted to be, in a straight line. We knew that there was a large body of water in the way, with steep hills on either side. What the map did show was ferry routes and although there were no direct boats it looked as if we could get one boat across to the Asian side of the Bosphorus and another one back to where we wanted to be. Isla loves boat trips so we decided that it was worth a try. It was quite a trek from the hotel to the docks and we tried very hard to ignore the fact that all the downhill trudging on the way there would be uphill on the way back.

December seems to be a good time to come to İstanbul. The boats are very frequent, but not busy. We paid 1.30 Lira (GBP 0.46 / USD 0.91) each and boarded the boat. A couple of minutes later it set sail and we were on our way to our first new continent. To be honest the ferry port on the Asian side (Üsküdar) didn't look or feel any different than Beşiktaş, where we'd come from. A quick snap was taken of Isla (see photo) and we walked over to the departure point for Eminönü, handed over another 1.30 Lira each and got on another boat. It had been only a flying visit to Asia, but we intend to come back!

Still mapless, we were a bit lost so we made finding a map our first priority. Close to the docks is the railway station and we spotted a kiosk there selling street maps. We bought the largest, most detailed one we could find for 10 Lira (GBP 3.57 / USD 7.01).

The tourist centre of Istanbul is Sultanahmet and we knew from research on Hostelworld that there are plenty of hostels there as well as some high-priced places like the Four Seasons. We'd written down the details of a few places that looked good and there was one in particular that stood out from the rest: The Antique Hostel, so we decided to head there first. We were almost at the door when we were stopped by a friendly Turk. Wouldn't we like to come and see his carpets? Not really, we said. We're looking for accommodation. "Hey, no problem, my friend has a hotel. Very nice big rooms, very reasonable prices. Come and see." It couldn't hurt to have a look—it made sense to have something to compare other places with and we weren't short of time so we followed him round the corner to his friend's hotel. The two friends had a brief conversation in Turkish and the hotel owner turned to us. Glenn explained that we hadn't looked anywhere else yet so we wouldn't be booking immediately, but we'd very much like to see the room and find out the price. It was a very nice big room with a good bathroom, but it was 60 Euros a night (our absolute ceiling was 40). We made "this is nice" type noises and went back out onto the street.

Although always an experience, we have found that one of the disadvantages of being led off by carpet sellers is that you lose your bearings and it took us quite a bit of walking around to get back to where we'd started. We went into Antique and asked about rooms. They were full for the next couple of nights, but could accommodate us from the 11th. We asked to see the room. They could show us one of the two doubles so we went up and had a look. It had a wonderful view over the Marmaris Sea to Asia and was very clean so we went back downstairs to talk terms. They agreed to let us have the room for 40 Euros if we took it for a week.

With accommodation sorted from 11th onward all we needed was a bed for the two interim nights and we decided that now that we knew the lie of the land we'd be better off on Hostelworld, where we could read the reviews, than walking door to door so we headed back towards the ferries and the long trudge uphill to the Dedeman.

We'd realised by now exactly why this 'five-star' hotel (really four-star at best) was so (relatively) cheap: it was miles from anything. We hadn't had lunch so we were resigned to taking an overpriced hotel bar snack. Actually the 15 Lira (GBP 5.39 / USD 10.52) club sandwich was very tasty and huge so we didn't feel too cheated. We booked two nights in the Bauhaus Hostel in Sultanahmet (just around the corner from the Antique), had another bath, another good sleep and checked out as late as possible before availing ourselves of the free internet for another three hours post checkout. We're getting good at making full use of free stuff. In fact we hogged one of the two internet terminals so much that a sign has probably gone up limiting use to fifteen minutes. Since we don't intend to go back to the Dedeman we don't care!

So, we're sorted out with accommodation until December 18th. Now all we have to do is put our good intentions of slowing down and getting to know a city into practice. Sounds easy.