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Archive for August, 2009

Leaky Pipe Oasis

August 31st, 2009 peretz 1 comment

We don’t have much internet now, so this is just a little something to whet your appetite.

Leaky Pipe Oasis

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Geogrian Hospitality – Tbilisi

August 27th, 2009 peretz 1 comment

We drove into Tbilisi under the cover of night and pulled over for directions. The gentleman I asked immediately dropped what he was doing and made our priorities his priorities.

“Has the driver drank?”

“No.”

“Is the driver drunk?”

“No.”

He walked over to make sure. Somewhat surprised, he said, “Well then, this is what we will do. We will call the police. Please do not be worried. This is a little bit unusual for us as well, but given that it is the way it is, I really want to demonstrate it. You see, over the past four years, the Police have become — like dog shall we say — a true friend of man. They are not here to bother you, but to help you. They will take you to your lodgings.”

When the police arrived a few minutes later, he kissed me on the cheek, called us his “dears” and invited us for dinner. “The political situation in Georgia (with regards to Russia) may be complicated,” he said, “but the situation of guest in Georgia is always good.”

“You are my dears,” he said when the police arrived and kissed my three times on the cheeks good bye. “We shall meet again and I will have you over for dinner!”

The police gave us a prompt sirened escort to our lodgings, made sure it was the correct address, shook our hands and drove away. We were following the directions sent to us by our couchsurfing host, and fumbled around in dark crumbling stairwells to the third floor courtyard where I asked for Luka’s lodgings from an elderly woman. She pointed, and we knocked. A young man opened the door and I said, “nice to meet you Luka!”

He said, “Don’t you know?” It turned out that Luka was such a gracious host that he hosted people at his appartment even in his absense using couchsurfing as an agent!

Everyone in the building complex and coutyard seem to know this, and where the hiding place for his keys was. One time when Tristan tried to surreptitously fumble through the drawers within view of construction workers in a neighboring apparment, one of them ran over, pushed him aside and confidently took out the key, “here you go my friend.”

The apparment was charming. There were maggots feasting on a month old stew in the kitchen. The toilet did not work flush without buckets of water. But such is the lot of Abusrdistan. Strangely, this may have been what we came for.

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Farewell Hari! Fairwell dear friend!

August 26th, 2009 peretz 1 comment

I have long been intending to write a post chronicalling the many warm, wonderful and intersting people we have met along the way, and Hari was kind enough to occasionally remind me. As I sit here on the shore awaiting my ferry across the sea, I want to write this post first to mark Hari’s return to the US of A. He wandered with us across manifold terrain from Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan, but having lapsed his aloted vacation time, he can go no further. He will not pass into the promised land, and I know that this troubles him a little. I am sad to see him, his logisitical capacities, his water filtration skills, his company in the tent, and his constant cheer. But go he must, and I understand this. We thank the NIH for loaning him to us for as much as they did and we made the best of it. There are microscopes to build Hari. I spurr you on! There is a worm’s development to map out! There are post-dcs to hire and a lab to start. A farewell gift is this set of pictures for your lab webpage. Make good use of them:

And then there were two …

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Georgia on my mind

August 19th, 2009 Hari 3 comments

08/19/09, 10 am in the morning, Luka’s place, Tbilisi

I was going to write about the border experience at the Georgia/Turkey crossing, and the value of videotaping in order to convince guards with M16s to leave you alone, but PP did such a good job describing that experience that I’ll instead focus on my current environ, and my initial, cursory impressions of Georgia.

I’m writing this from an apartment we found on CouchSurfing, on the eastern side of Tbilisi (there is a river that runs through the city). The apartment is large, with several huge, high-ceilinged rooms. Walls are a white, peeling plaster, covered with paintings, Georgian maps, and inscriptions in marker or colored pencil that are etched onto the walls themselves. The place is not the cleanest – floor is dusty, the old comfortable chair that I’m writing this from has soaked up god-knows-what, the toilet flush is broken (requiring us to fill a large basin with water to physically force our excreta down the plumbing), and the shower is temperemental – while giving up hot water, it occasionally shuts off mid-stream. The apartment is located on the 3rd floor of a decaying building, and the first floor is redolent with the smell of urine, either cat or human. But despite the grottiness, the apartment feels comfortable, and exudes an air of mystery to it. It is also free. We haven’t actually met our host, Luka, having communicated with him only via the internet. It seems from the many notes on the wall that lots of other people have stayed here, and have also not met the host – apparently Luka is quite comfortable loaning his apartment to those in need, while he is off on travels of his own (he is now in Turkey). When we first arrived here two nights ago, there were two Poles and an Austrian who had also discovered the place and were crashing while exploring Tbilisi – they also had not met our mysterious host! From the few photographs of him on the wall, I gather that he has a large, curly black beard, and serious eyes. I also wonder if he has spent time blacksmithing – there are some interesting photographs of him with some older gents, in a forge-like setting with large cast bells and red-hot metal. In any case, his generosity has allowed us to explore Tbilisi without worrying about payment for lodgings, so I thank him heartily for that.

We spent yesterday exploring Tbilisi, the first half of the day by car (having paid an old Armenian to drive us around the city, and narrate to PP in Russian the meanings and descriptions of various places), and the second half by foot. Tbilisi – and Georgia – remind me more of Eastern Europe than Turkey. Many of the buildings are old and decaying, and the city seems edgier and gritty in a way that Eastern Europe was. I am also faintly reminded of Buenos Aires, and South America. People are physically more European than Turkish – lots of dark hair, but skin is white, and features are western. There is also more obesity here than in Turkey – have encountered several examples of large, Jabba-the-hutt-like specimens, both male and female. I suspect the fat is due to the richness of the food – cheese pies (khatchapuri) are very tasty but calorie-ridden, and the massive quantity and size of khinkhali (meat dumplings) that show up when placing an order probably also are a contributing factor. While very filling and interesting, there seems to be a lack of green things in the food – I am enjoying it, but would probably get sick of it soon, vegetarian options being somewhat limited.

I’ll relate a fun experience from two days ago, when we first arrived in Tbilisi. As PP mentioned, the street signs here are all in Georgian – so his knowledge of cyrillic is not useful (atlhough his Russian is – most Georgians are familiar with that language, and are happy to help giving us directions), and navigation is harder than in Turkey or Europe. When we arrived in Tbilisi, it was also dark, and we had only Luka’s street name and his apartment building number. To further complicate matters, when we asked an elderly Georgian in Tbilisi where the street was, he told us that many streets had recently been renamed, and that he didn’t know where this particular location was. However, he did have a good suggestion. Apparently the cops are now very helpful and useful to the locals, and he suggested that we call them in order to have them escort us to Luka’s place! After first making sure that T$ had drunk no beer (the legal BAC level is 0 in these countries), he placed a call to the cops on his cell phone, asking them to help us. About 3 minutes later, two cop cars showed up, and we ended up getting a police escort to the apartment! How’s that for service? I managed to videotape part of this, so perhaps if we get a chance we’ll post it.

For now, it’s time to rouse T$ and PP, who are still passed out on the floor. Time to be up and moving towards Azerbaijan…

–Hari

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Georgia Border Crossing, 8/17/09

August 19th, 2009 peretz No comments

Our last day in Turkey started in an place which will soon be wiped off the map to be replaced by a swath of blue, submerged by the lake waters of large dam system in the valley of the Kashgar mountains – Yusufeli. The construction work was underway to replace the valley highway we were on with a larger highway snaking along the surrounding mountain tops. Huge tractors were carving up the mountain face dumping large boulders onto our path. There were signs warning us of falling rocks along our way, and soon there actually were falling rocks — intermittent avalanches — denting the already pot-hole rich surface upon impact and occasionally making it completely impassible. When this happened, the road was blocked to make way for tractors to push the mountain debris into the river itself, and we would stop and make conversation with others in the same situation.

One of the people turned out to be an geological engineer from Ankara coming to make inspections of an already existing damn upstream and he told us about the geological formations of the region and the progress of construction.

A truck driver with a load of cantelopes picked some choice specimens, sought out a bit of shade, started carving them up, and offering slices to other wayfarers. Tristan enjoyed the cantalopes and decided to buy a couple. The land is fertile in that valley, and there were trees bearing large figs, which I plucked following the example of the locals and ate too many.

Rope and wood suspension bridges connected the river banks and now that we had the time we decided to cross one. When we came near and saw how precarious it was, we decided against it.

Eventually the tractors cleared enough debris to pass, and we climbed the mountain pass through the town of Artvin, picking up our last Turkish hitchhiker, and eventually made our way the other side, seeing the Black Sea for the first time…

The terrain changed substantually became lush, subtropical, with terraced gardens, large fields of berries, and even the turkish people in that region were different, light skinned, blue eyed. Across the jagged valleys stretched steel cables which bore buckets used to transport tools to the fields and the harvest back home.

From there it was just a short 30 minute ride up the coast to town of Sarpie and the border crossing into Georgia. About a mile of cargo trucks was waiting at the border, which as a passenger car we passed and so began our most complex border crossing so far.

It had the most intermediate steps, each mildly confusing in its purpose, like a microbureaucracy. One of the immediate peculiarities of this border was the number of plain clothes “helpers” on both the Turkish and Georgian sides, eager to get their hands on your passport and offering to navigate the process with you. A couple times we seemed to progress to the next step only to be turned back, to “check out customs” or some station with a similar moniker. When we were already on the Georgian side, the uniforned official looked us over and told us to go back to a Turkish station and imdicated to one of these helpers to accompany us. Three of them came, quietly arguing among themselves who it was that was sent and all three took turns reaching out for our passports. “I’ll hold on to them, thanks.” Who were these people? I decided to withhold revealing my knowlege of Russian, even when asked, and it took some concentration not to respond one way or the other when they asked me in Russian if I spoke it. Better play the dumb American, amd have the wild card in my back pocket.

When the Turks, who were watching YouTube in their booth (Youtube is, for the moment, banned in Turkey), stamped our passport yet another time and told us, “You are now free.” The helpers got uncomfortably close. When we got into the car, they basically reached in through the window, asking quite explicitly for us to give them some money so there would not be any problems. I said, “no problems” locked the doors, rolled up the windows, while their hands were still inside the car in a fleeting hungry form of protest. We drove on, clearned the first Georgian station and got in line for the next. It felt important not to stall, yet none of the officials urged us along to the next way point. It was a guessing game. We zig-zagged into what seemed to be the next bottle neck, and as we were about to pull in, an armed man with an M16 and his comrade came to the window and told us we needed Georgian Insurance. “We have international insurance, see.” I pointed at our car’s Green Card (a document indicating such).

“No, you need Georgian Insurance.”

“Yes, we have international insurance, and Georgia is a nation.”

“No” said the armed man.

“Yes”

“No”

“Yes”

We had made it a practice to video tape our progress through borders (a border reel is under compilation) and at some point the unarmed comrade spotted our camera and started making a fuss of it.

“No”

“Yes”

He indicated something to the armed man and that guy suddenly walked away.

“No”

“Yes”

This time he gave up and walked away himself leaving us a clear path to the next station. We immediately pulled in.

Inside the station, the environment was a bit calmer, the female border officials seemed to be ignoring both the plain clothes and the armed accessories and dealt with us professionally. They entered data into their computers and asked pertinent questions, where, how long, etc.

Hari and I were forced to exit the car and proceed at the pedestrian border crossing, and Tristan was left with the car, to navigate the remaining redundencies. All of us were first photographed. Hari and I came out the other end and witness the unpleasantries that the now red-shirted official looking border guards were inflicting on the drivers in the next hurdle, searching the cars, guiding people into a parking lot from which there was no obvious eflux. I wanted to make sure Tristan didn’t fall into what seemed like their trap and ignored them and drove onward. Surprisingly, we were spared this step — could have been due to the brand of our passports? Most of the detainies were Russian, Turkish, Armenian, or Georgian. We drove on to yet another check point, which was a final review of all the papers.

Clear. Whew. We paid nothing. We got a 5 day transit visa. We didn’t have to get any extraneous insurance and we didn’t pay any bribes, but our nerves were on steely alert. We learned the lesson that you don’t have to obey just because someone with an M16 tells you it is so, and our edgy practice of video taping our official interactions was strangely vindicated. We shall see how this practice applies to the 8 border crossings to come.

One of the first signs we saw past the border said in bold letters. “Georgia is a Zero-Corruption country. Offering money to the police is a punishible offence.”

–Peretz

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Batumi – Georgia’s Black Sea Resort – 8/17-18/09

August 18th, 2009 peretz No comments

The driving in Turkey required substantial adaptation. The driving in Georgia required substantial rewiring of the brain. Cows, pigs, geece, donkeys constantly wandered onto the road. If in Turkey you occasionally needed to swerve onto oncoming traffic to pass a slow car, driving on the opposite side of the road indefinitely and inexplicably is common practice in Georgia.

All of the street signs in Georgia, when they exist, are written in a cryptic Georgian script and Google Maps are absent for the entire country. Our navigation system switched to one of word of mouth, and I would frequently lean out or hop out of the car to ask the locals for directions. Even more so than the Balkans my Russian came in handy, and the people I asked were among the friendliest I have met. They responded eagerly, even so much as walking several blocks out of their way to point out the corner alley of the hotel where we would be staying. Moreover, their conversation was delightfully laced with humor.

Draft beer for sale in various containers, from recycled soda bottles to plastic bags, whatever is more convenient for you to carry, and lots of delicious looking smoked or dried fish.

The streets of Batumi were overgrowing with vines, which sprouted from the cracks in the pavement, climb up walls to provided shade and fruit to balconies several stories high, would follow an electrical wire across the street and return to the pavement again.

When we booked a room at a small smoked out pension, I told the hosts the story of our experiences at the border. They were surprised. We are a “zero corruption country” they said. Who were these “pederasts” at the border? If you took video, you should send it immediately to the border commissioner to send these people to prison.

Batumi is the primary Georgian resort town on the black sea. It’s heyday came in the early 20th century when it was a primary port for oil exports providing 1/2 of the world’s oil and was a recepient of investments and early oil production innovations from the likes of Alfred Nobel and the Rothchilds. The old city has an imperial charm, but it’s current state is one of dilapidation and looks like one big construction zone. Streets are dug up. There are feces floating in exposed manholes. There was an initially puzzling sign at the entrance of the city.IMG_2314

We later learned that this was a development project which had been underway for several years and slated to go on for another two.

Navigating these potholes and webs of one way streets was a startling number of fancy cars, mostly black Mercedes and black sleek Toyota Land Cruisers. A lot of these fancy cars were in poor shape, missing bumpers, broken headlights, loud or absent exhaust systems. Concrete was being cut with masonry dust tainting the air, exposed rebar, crumbling buildings, etc.

Dodging the cars and the envoronmental hazards were a mery mixture of Georgians, Russians and Armenians which showed no indication that anything was out of the ordinary. They went about their business buying 60 cent draft beers from the huge wooden casks, or Kvas, or seeds and Khachapuri from the stands staffed by old large mustached ladies that Tristan kept mistaking for Jabba the Hut.

The main activity of the town was on the beach side prominade which was a overflowing with merry makers of all ages consuming popcorn, cotton candy, khatchapuri and lining up to all sorts of nighcluby disco establishments with bad music, built into the shapes of ships or cordoned off VIP resorts, guarded by bouncers in black clothes and built like 300 pound hulking humpty dumpties. Traditionally I have heard this body shape described as “bears” but this would imply a little bit more articulation of the limbs.

Something unusual caught my eye and I first did not believe it. One of the perplexing border helpers was standing right there on the bordwalk, chowing down handfulls of popcorn in glazed eye stuppor. This time, I could use my Russian.

“Hello. You remember me?”

“Da.”

“What do you do for work?”

“Ahhrrr.”

“Why were you asking us for money at the border?”

“Ahhrrrr.”

“I appreciate your concern for us and your offers to reduce the number of problems at the border.”

“Ahhrrr…”

I snapped more pictures of him directly, and took a video of that interaction also. “Well, be well, can you recommend a restaurant for us to go to with cheap traditional food?” IMG_2323He pointed and we walked in the opposite direction. Later I snapped photos of him leering at some candy floss.

Over dinner we were recommended to check out the disco in the basement of the Intourist Hotel “if you want to meet some girls” and just for the hell of it we actually went to check it out. The parking lot of the hotel was a itself a construction site, an off road sand lot, and it had the most peculiar scene we had seen so far. About a dozen black Landcruisers with tinted windows were parked, with their doors open. Inside was a border humpty dumpty in each seat and an M16 resting across his lap. Milling about were mean looking men with scowling expressions, some of which wore camo pants. Tristan encouraged me to ask what was going on and the conversation went something like this:

“Hello, what are all of these armed men for?”

“What armed men?”

“Is there anything happening that brings you here?”

“No, there is nothing special.”

“If there is nothing special, is it always like this?”

“Sometimes it is like this, and sometimes it is not like this.”

“Thank you very much, I think I understand everything now.”

There was a 10 GEL cover for the disco so we decided that I should go inside alone to see if the price was worth paying. I cleared a metal detector, was patted down, and went through a dimly lit smokey basement into a neon lit room. There were not more than a dozen guests and about as many burly beasts. The guests were all women. I wouldn’t call them attractive, and as I walked by they glanced up from their coctails, twirled round in their bar stools, shifting their posture from cross legged to something slightly more revealing and rolling their facial expressions from one kind of bored to another. I understood what the restaurant proprietor meant about “meeting girls” and I left the disco quite soon, thanking the guards for the gratis admission and telling Hari and Tristan that we probably wouldn’t be coming back.

We wound down at a cozier cafes with glorious artifacts of silver and gold refering back to the imperial charm of this seaside town.

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Ankara to Capadocia

August 14th, 2009 Hari 2 comments

8/14/09, 1:15 pm, en route to Nemrut Dagi (Turkey)

Having passed through Ankara and Capadocia, we are now en route to Nemrut Dagi, a mountain where a pre-Roman megalomanical king carved his face and those of the Gods (to whom he thought he was related) into massive boulders on the mountain’s summit.

We’ve about 5 hours left of driving, so I figured now would be a good time to chronicle the adventures of the last few days. We’re all in good health still – my lips were pretty chapped and were bleeding a bit, so I bought some chapstick and now they’re doing better. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of buying the strawberry-flavored kind, so although it tastes good, my lips are now a ruby-red… I look a bit funny.

Astrid (the car) has fared a little worse than us. Today we took her first to one mechanic for welding the muffler back on – it had been rattling alarmingly. About half an hour later (and about fifteen minutes ago), we discovered that when the muffler loosened, it also caused a front exhaust leak. We therefore took Astrid to a second mechanic, to have the leak fixed (a hose in the front had to be welded back on). I think we’ve been relatively lucky so far – no major Astrid problems as yet, and we’ve put on about 7300 km on her since the trip started (she had 154000 km when we bought her). I’ve grown pretty attached to the car – it affords us a flexibility that I’ve never had on previous trips, where I’ve mostly traveled by bus and train, and thus have been tied to those schedules.

But back to Ankara: We were pretty lucky to stay with a friend of a friend of PP, Siva, who is a master’s student in the ODTU campus in Ankara. She kindly let us stay at her family’s house, so we enjoyed nice beds and good breakfasts during our Ankaran stay, making it a convenient base from which to get our visas (there are many embassies and consulates in Ankara). As Azerbaijan is the next country on our route to require a visa (for Georgia, we technically need one also, but this can be gotten easily at the Turkey/Georgia border), we first drove over to the Azerbaijani embassy. All of the embassies are in rather grand, fenced-in bulidings, and most are open 5 days a week, for only a 3 hour window from 9 am to noon. As we found out, although these are the posted hours, most of the embassies we visited opened during a subset of this time, approximately whenever the staff feel like letting visitors in. For Azerbaijan, although we got there at 10:30, we (and the other visitors) were made to wait an additional 30 minutes for no obvious reason. Once inside, the guy who manned the desk told us that we couldn’t get an Azerbaijani visa without first getting proof that we were going to either Turkmenistan or Kazakhstan – evidenlty, they want to make sure that we had an onward destination. Wandering around the embassy compound, we found the Kazakh embassy and filled in paperowork to get that documentation started. The Kazakh staff were quite friendly, and PP helped a lot by communicating with them in Russian. They told us the visas would take one day to process – evidently our paperwork needed to be faxed to Kazakhstan and then sent back to the embassy in Ankara. They also needed to hold onto our passports for a day.

Needing to wait a day in Ankara (we couldn’t visit and get visas from other embassies without our passports), we explored a bit of the town. There’s a great historical and artistic museum in Ankara, filled with pottery, coins, sculptures, busts, etc. from Hittite, Roman, Christian, and Muslim times, certainly worth a visit. Above and behind the museum are the remnants of an old castle, and climbing up to it, one is afforded great views of the city. Although Ankara is the capital, and more metropolitan than Istanbul (less touristy, more businesslike, with less obvious ‘sights’), we had an interesting time walking around the castle area, because the cobbled streets were populated with a much different cross-section of Turkish society – poorer and more overtly Muslim (lots of headscarves on the women) than those we had seen before. Many of the families were enjoying their dinner outside as we walked around, and a small crowd of curious children started to follow us, excited that we were taking pictures and occasionally asking, ‘Money? Money?’. I certainly enjoyed seeing this different side of the city, but I did feel a bit uncomfortable walking around their houses and taking pictures. It felt in a weird way quite intrusive – I’m pretty sure that I’d not appreciate being photographed in and around my house as I was eating my dinner by curious tourists. I feel that much of the trip so far has been about trying to find a balance between straying from the beaten path and observing the ‘real’ life that goes on, but without offending and harassing the local people – at one point, we tried to photograph an interior courtyard, and were told firmly by the locals that we weren’t allowed to do this.

The next day we returned to the Kazakh embassy and picked up our passports, proudly admiring our new Kazakh visas. Running out of time, we then rushed to the Turkmen embassy. Like Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan requires additional visas for the other countries surrounding it, and this time we had proof that we could lawfully pass through Kazakhstan. Still, we arrived at the embassy with about 10 minutes to spare (11:50 am) before closing, so the chubby Turkmen official that we talked to was reluctant to process the paperwork, claiming that it would delay his lunch. Apparently, one needs to provide visa photos, fill out the appropriate visa application form, provide a copy of our passport information page and have a photocopy of other relevant visas in the passport. PP again saved us – he sweet-talked the official into giving us the time to quickly fill out the forms, and even got the guy to photocopy the relevant parts of our passports and visas. It would have taken at least a day to process the relevant paperwork, so PP also got the Turkmen to send on the approved visas to Baku, in Azerbaijan, thus saving us more time and allowing us to proceed from Ankara to Capadocia. I would offer the following advice to those who are interested in getting visas on the road, as we are attempting to do: 1.) strategize and make sure that you get the easy visas first, especially those that border the countries that you are planning on visiting, as having these exit and entry countries in tow makes it easier to convince the middle countries that you need to go through them 2.) having a Russian speaker that can help you negotiate with officials is extremely helpful, and 3.) remember that most of the ‘rules’ can be bent, especially if one is persuasive and persistent. It remains to be seen if the Turkmen visas will arrive in Baku, and how easy it will be to get the Azerbaijani visas in Tbilisi, Georgia (we decided to try our luck there, instead of waiting for the visa in Ankara), but with the Kazakh visa in my passport I remain optimistic.

From Ankara, we headed southeast (about 4 hours drive), to Capadocia. I can’t realy do this amazing landscape justice with my desciption, as in this case a picture really is worth a thousand words. Capadocia consists of valleys and hills that are packed with intriguing rock structures, caves, and underground cities. There are many ‘fairy chimneys’ – rock spires that narrow and are topped with round protuberances. Although some of the many of the caves that are carved into the rocks were initiated by civilizations that lived several millenia ago, the most striking artwork and features that remain are due to the Christians that occupied the caves starting in the 4th century AD. Evidently the Persians would try and drive or kill off the Christians monks that lived here, so they devised an intricate system of interconnected escapeways – underground ciites that extend many stories deep, or many stories high, and gigantic stone wheels that could be swung into place, acting as doorways that effectively block off sections of cave networks. Many of these caves and and tunnels are remarkably well-preserved, and even the artwork – frescos of Christ and his disciples, various angels and other biblical figures – are still visible today.

The very features of the rocks that made it possible to carve out caves and passages – their malleability – also lend the structures a certain fragility. Many of the old dwellings we saw had literally been sheared away over time – there are often holes that are cut into the rock, but that are impossible to get to because the staircases or shafts that initially led to them have decayed or eroded away. The first day we arrived in Capadocia, we spent a few fun hours exploring, bushwacking and spelunking through a fairy chimney and cave system, and several times my feet slipped, as the chalky white rock that I climbed upon crumbled beneath me. The second day, we decided to lose ourselves in one of the myriad valleys in the region – quite a trip. Although Capadocia appears dry and arid initially, the valley was filled with all manner of beautiful shrubberies, magenta and purple blooms amidst a veritable garden of eden consisting of grape vines, tart apples, apricots, plums, wild figs, and squashes. The desert setting hides a suprisingly fertile landscape, irrigated by the rivers that cut through the different valleys. Somehow we ended up that evening in a club beneath the remants of a castle of interconnecting caves. It was T$ who summarized the surreal surrounding the best: ‘doggs, we’re in a Turkish cave bar!’. Complete with twirling disco balls, western dance beats, dusty divans, hookahs, and faded carpets, we sipped contendedly on apple tea and downed a bottle of local cherry wine.

Although Capadocia is well-preserved, a feast for the senses, and holds many more mysteries (several caves, monasteries, and churches we found were unearthed only a few years ago, having sunk into the ground over the centuries), this tourist blessing is not without a price. As is always the case, probing the local culture allows one to dig deeper into the nature of a place and reveals details and nuances that are hidden in an initial survey. The bar proprietor, Salemi, told us with a certain amount of cynicism that the declaration of the region as a UNESCO preserved world-heritage site has had not-so-good consequences for the locals that inhabit the place. Preservation has meant that somewhat arbitrary lines have been drawn around the region and through it – people that happened to have been inhabiting caves that have declared to have have historic value are under restrictions on how they can expand their dwellings, manage their gardens, and otherwise modify their houses. This is a tricky issue, as from a global perspective there is value to having these areas preserved, but from a local perspective it hardly seems fair to place such restrictions on those that have been living here for their entire lives. It is also interesting to speculate on the ‘touristification’ of a place, and what it does to the local businesses, and mentalities of the locals. Is this a good thing for the place? There is an air of aritificiality in the Turkish baths, the identical (or at least very similar) eateries that cater to the western palates, the book exchanges, cave-dwellings that have been converted to pensions and hotels, and gas-guzzling buses that permeate the place. I am convinced that I am richer for having visited this region, although I cannot help but notice the way in which tourists have influenced the place.

On a separate note, aD left us today, heading back to Istanbul, Amsterdam, and then home. She and her sunny character, as well as her nursing skills and ‘mother hen’ like ways will be missed. And then there were three…

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Istanbul or Constantinople?

August 9th, 2009 Hari No comments

En route to Ankara from Istanbul, 8:10 pm, 8/9/2009

Europe or Asia? Secular or Muslim? Istanbul, the city we spent the last 3 days in, is a cultural crossroads, a palimpsest that has
been written over many times by Christians, Muslims, historical forces both old and new. The best way I can make sense of the city is to describe it as a hybrid. The streets are dirtier than in Europe, but not as dirty as the cities of the far east (Mumbai, Beijing). The bazaars are crowded with tourists and locals, but not as choked as the markets in China or India. Cars are both new and old, and walking about the city one sees both miniskirst and Burkhas. There are many mosques, some quite old (The Aya Sofya was first a church, in Emperor Constantine’s time, and a mosque in the time of the Sultans), but also many a ‘Turkcell’ phone booth scattered throughout the city (these are glass bubbles with bright-eyed young men and women who will sell you a 3G card). Even the people themselves are a hybrid – olive skins, black hair with green or blue eyes, with the occasional red-head thrown in to add a spash of color to the mix. The food has changed, but not as dramatically as you might think – pita breads and grilled meats abound, white cheeses and baklava, olives – more of an eastern influence perhaps, but all items that we had seen before in the Balkans.

I’m not sure what I expected when I came to Istanbul – perhaps more of the exotic than what I saw. It is fascinating to see the extent that the society has adapted to the western world, and I’m curious to see how much more it will change in the years ahead. Will all be homogenized? How much of Islam will pervade this society in 10 years? 50? 100?

One establishment that hopefully will stand the test of time is the Turkish bath – a delight that we all indulged in Istanbul. The building we bathed in was ~500 years old, built in the late 16th century, and full of white marble. After being being separated by gender, we disrobed and were given a wrap to hide our privates. We were led to a hot room and sweated for a while, then mustachioed men came and exfoliated us with hot water and soap. I felt cleaner than I had been in a long time. After the bath portion, we had oil massages. The masseur looked me over, told me I had too much hair, then pounded me with his fists for half an hour as I lay down on a raised platform. PP told me that the masseurs collectively referred to me as the ‘Hindu sausage’ (?!) A quick shower finished the experience. Not cheap ($60 US), but definitely worth it if you are in Istanbul.

Tomorrow we will try and find out how to obtain Azeri and Turkmeni visas – supposedly there are embassies in Ankara. From there, we journey onwards to Cappadocia and central Turkey.

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Our Wheelz

August 6th, 2009 Tristan No comments

Astrid’s crankshaft turned over for the first time in 1994. Gleaming off the assembly line with a bright turquoise paint job and a slightly funky deco interior, it was immediately clear that she had a spunky, no-nonsense attitude and a passion for travel. After a series of dead-end relationships in Germany, she found herself broken-down and out in Dresden. She had fallen in with a bad crowd of used vehicles, some destined for better things and some destined for the proverbial junk yard. On a fateful day in July 2009 she met Amanda and Tristan through a mutual friend (Geri); there was chemistry from the first turn of the key. She got so excited her passenger-side mirror fell off (how embarrassing!). A week later, Amanda and Tristan and Astrid began moving forward with their new relationship. While it was clear she could hold her own on the road, the team came to realize she also carried a lot of baggage. After the relationship had some mileage, she confessed (through a bad valve-tick) that she had a synthetic (oil) drinking problem. Each day presents her with new challenges, new bumps in the road, but we push on (with 2 quarts of oil at all times), and the current team of Astrid, Peretz, Hari, Amanda and Tristan are looking forward to changing gears from the comforts of Europe to the intrigues of Asia.

Astrid’s Facts IMG_0888
Bust: 1598 cc
Waist: 5 speed
Age: 15
Education Level: 159,814 km
Color: Turquoise
Favorite Drink: 95 Octane on the Beach
Favorite TV Show: Top Gear
Life Goals: “To see the world. Maybe meet a nice sedan someday.”

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Borders, Belgrade, Barges, and Bulgaria

August 4th, 2009 Hari No comments

En route to Plovdiv from Sofia, 9 pm, 8/4/9

No major health problems as yet (for either humans or the car), although we had to reattach the right-hand passenger mirror after I inadvertently knocked it off (it was loose to begin with, when the car was purchased), and we are all developing a slight heat rash because of the temperature, which regularly exceeds 90 F. I suspect it will only get warmer as we head further east.
The heat also is suppressing our appetite – we are down to ~1.5 meals a day, usually a light breakfast (coffee, the occasional bowl of cereal or pastry) and a heavier linner. We just don’t feel that hungry, in part because we are probably burning far fewer calories as we drive and walk around cities than we do in our normal activity-filled days back in the States. I’m fairly sure I’ll return home ~10 lbs lighter than when I left, although this is nothing new (when I go to India, diarrhea usually thins me out a bit).

I had mentioned last time that we had some issues at the borders. Turns out one needs a ‘green card’ – essentially a proof of insurance in multiple languages. Although the car is insured, and we have a yellow piece of German paper to prove it, we didn’t appear to have been given the corresponding green card when the car was purchased. This wasn’t a problem until we reached the Serbian border, when we were told that we needed it. Further complicating matters, although there was a workaround (one can buy ‘border insurance’ to get through), the particular border that one could purchase the insurance was ~80 km to the north. While we were deciding how best to get into Serbia, we dug around in the car and found a green card – but it was for a previous owner, and the license plate # didn’t match our current plates. We tried again at the same border, but were turned back, as the Serbian border police checked our plates. At this point, we were starting to get some funny looks from the Bosnian border people, as they had seen us attempt to leave (and re-enter) their border twice. We were also starting to think about how best to actually obtain the document – it seemed like not having it would incur more complications further along the trip. Ideas ranged from trying to call the German agency that issued us the insurance to attempting to forge our current license plate # on the green card we had (possible with a photocopier and some green paper).

In any case, we decided to try the northern border, and had mentally prepared ourselves to pay whatever amount the Serbian police asked for border insurance. By this point, it was getting quite dark, and for once, the night worked in our favor. The Serbian border guards were either too lazy or too tired to get out of their booth to check the match between our plates and what was listed on the older green card in our possession, and the darkness meant that they couldn’t easily see the plates from their booth. We were waved through, after they checked that we had a green card. Lesson #1: driving through borders after hours can help if you lack the required papers!

The story has an amusing ending: although we later spent a few frustrating hours communicating with the German insurance company, and they refused to issue and send us a new green card to replace the one we thought they didn’t give us, it later turned out that we had the current green card after all! It was stuffed inside Tristan’s IDP (international driving permit, another document necessary to drive a car through Eurasia), and we just (ten minutes ago) found it, as we were pulled over by the Bulgarian police for speeding. Lesson #2: make sure you get and then *remember* where you put the green card.

Having snuck into the Serbian border, we proceeded to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. It was harder to sense the Muslim influence here – Belgrade is more Christian and further north, a bit out of our way to Turkey but still east of Sarajevo. On the other hand, the grit that I had felt in Bosnia was still evident in Belgrade: although the buildings weren’t as dilapidated and I didn’t see any that were shelled, graffiti was still prevalent everywhere, and cigarette butts lined the streets and parks. Belgrade is a fun city – lots of young people. We encountered several friendlies at the hostel we were staying at – the ‘Hotel Chilton’, a hole in the wall place a bit south of city center.

We’ve been in hostels now for the last few days, and there are similarities between them all: a youthful, fresh-faced friendly crowd, proprietors that aren’t anal about when checkout is, a ‘welcoming shot’ at each place we’ve stayed at, free internet and wi-fi, some kind of kitchen area, and generally grubby living conditions. While not outright filthy, there is definitely more dirt here than in the campgrounds or hotels we stayed at earlier. Most of the other travelers are in their early 20s, enjoying their drinks, rolling into bed after 2 am, and almost all smokers. I do like the enthusiasm and friendliness of these places, although I think I’ll enjoy leaving the crowds and doing some camping in Turkey and the Caucuses.

I’ll recount just one Belgrade experience – the dance clubs on the barges. Belgrade is surrounded on the west side by two rivers, the Danube and the Sava. At the western side of both rivers, there are many barges that are moored, and that house pubs, restaurants, and dance clubs. We took a cab on Sunday evening to the west bank, and strolled about looking for a way to burn calories. Neither barge we went onto required a cover charge, but the feel of each was quite different. The first had a crowd that resembled that you might find at an east bay or san francisco party – young people that had interesting clothes (in fact, there was some kind of vintage clothing shop on board) and danced to 80s music tunes (english!) that we could understand, but most of which we had not heard before. Most of the Serbs onboard seemed to know all the lyrics, and mouthed them as they danced to them. There was also some sort of low-budget filming going on, with a camera-man constantly pointing and recording one particular couple that danced on the floor. The second barge had hordes of young Serbs that danced, grooved, and beat to the thump-thump of ‘drum and bass’. This was interesting to see, but much less my style – too much frenetic moving around. Both were quite interesting, and reminded me of the club/barges I had seen before many years ago on the London Thames. Anyway, it was nice to see people many miles from home getting down and having as good time as my friends in the US.

Leaving Belgrade behind, we drove into Bulgaria, and spent a day in Sofia. We didn’t have any issues with border crossings, perhaps partially because Bulgaria is now in the EU (unlike Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia). The ‘EU-ification’ of Bulgaria seemed to have other effects also – although Bulgaria retains its own currency for now (the Lev), Sofia seems much more western european than the balkan countries between Croatia and Bulgaria. McDonalds, Dunkin’ Donuts, etc have all found there way here, although Sofia does retain its own undeniable charm. The streets near city center are colorfully (gaudily?) painted gold, a shade that has dirtied somewhat throughout the years, but nevertheless evoked a fanciful yellow-brick road feeling in me. There is much more of a Greek Orthodox flavor at work, with the churches heavy on iconography, and the portaits of Christ and the apostles artistically different than the churches in Vienna.

Today, we drove from Sofia to Plovdiv, a smaller town in Bulgaria that I had never heard of before, in order to get some rest tonight. Tomorrow we travel to Corlu, a town in Turkey near the border, and from there, Istanbul! Eastern promises await…

–Hari

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