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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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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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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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Eastern Europe: Grittier, Edgier, Cheaper

August 2nd, 2009 Hari No comments

8/2/09

11:50 am, Belgrade

I’m writing this from the nice hostel we checked into late (~3 am) last night, while I’m waiting for T$ and PP to rouse themselves. The last few nights our driving has fallen into a pattern – get up around 10 am, explore a city until ~4pm, then drive into the evening and night to get to our next destination. While ok, this has been a bit fatiguing, so we’re taking a ‘down day’ in Belgrade to recharge our mental and physical batteries before continuing east. We need to do a better job of planning our route- the atlas we have is good, but it would be even better to google-map our ongoing route to help us with directions. It’s time consuming to drive into a city and try and find a place to crash when we arrive in the dark, rather than making a reservation beforehand and taking advantage of the daylight. In Slovenia and Switzerland, we could get away with camping near town, but in the large cities of the Eastern bloc, this is less viable. The good news is that these cities seem not to sleep, so we have been always able to find some place to crash. Signs have switched to Cyrillic, so PP has proved invaluable in helping us navigate. We’ve also had some interesting experiences at the borders, more about this later…

Resuming the narrative from last time: Dubrovnik is certainly a popular destination for Europeans. While packed to the gills with tourists, it’s also a pleasant destination, a charming old city overlooking the sea. Temperature was hot – 90s, so it was a struggle to stay hydrated as we navigated the city walls. One of the highlights of this town is that one can circumnavigate the entire old city by walking along the ramparts – takes about 45 minutes, and you are afforded great views of the shimmering, clear Adriatic. In the morning, I took a brief swim in the sea, cold but refreshing.

From Dubrovnik, we headed east towards Sarajevo, into Bosnia-Herzegovina. And it was on this portion of the road that the character of the land changed. First, as we were driving, cars became noticeably older (see a lot more of the Russian made Lada Niva – a 4×4 offroad vehicle). The land east of Croatia is pretty dry this time of year, but we still came across a lot of individual farms, rows of vegetables and corn, and the occasional greenhouse. Population density is a lot lower than before, and we saw far fewer cars than in Western Europe. A few times we encountered scenes that seemed to have been lifted from decades earlier – small refineries, groups of sheep, an isolated goat or two atop a rock near a small dwelling.

En route to Sarajevo, we passed through the beautiful old town of Mostar. This centrepiece of the town was the picturesque ‘Most’ or bridge, bombed during the Balkan wars of 1992-1994, but largely rebuilt and restored, and in the middle of a gentle valley. Walking along the cobbled lanes that led to the bridge, the Turkish/Ottoman influence was obvious – we came across a few mosques, the sounds of Arabic chanting lilting in the air, and were served ‘Bosnian’ (Turkish) coffee at a nearby cafe. I saw an old man with a long white beard – reminded me of caliphs or imams that I imagine I’ll see more of as I journey into Turkey. The physical characteristics of the people here are also a testament to the melting pot that is the Balkans – skin color is more olive than white, hair tends to be blacker, dress is more Muslim as I see more women are covered up. As romantic the bazaars were, venturing outside of the main drag one could notice that buildings had holes taken out of them, from shells. Its sobering to think that many people were killed here ~15 years ago, and one wonders how the shelling and shooting have affected the cultural psyche of the natives.

The shelling was more evident in the streets of Sarajevo – most of the buildings exhibited signs of light to moderate damage, and it was easy to pick out those buildings that were less than 15 years old. We drove down a byway that was nicknamed ‘Sniper Alley’, for obvious reasons. The scene here is gritty – streets are less clean, graffiti more prevalent, people exhibiting a little more machismo than in the more ‘refined’ cities I had seen further to the west. In one corner of town, a group of old men were playing and watching chess on a life-sized board, concentrating fiercely as they sought to predict the next moves. I wandered into an abandoned apartment building near the edge of the Old Town, again struck by the damage the building had sustained. I try (mostly unsuccessfully) to imagine what it was like during the height of the craziness, when ~11000 Sarajevans perished, and you couldn’t predict where the next shell would fall or whether it would be safe to walk outside the questionable haven of your room. Despite the war, life seems to have picked up again. There is a bustling tourist scene in the old town, with many a bazaar or restaurant offering up grilled meats, spinach pies, coffee, or other eastern treats. There is a sense of the western European chic as I venture into New Sarajevo, with girls heavily done up and in fashionable attire. Here, as in western Europe, there are the designer stores, but amidst a general sense of dilapidation, unlike the grand, well preserved buildings of Vienna. More on Belgrade and borders later – my friends are awake and we need to plan our day.

– Hari

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The Journey So Far: Vienna -> Croatia

July 30th, 2009 Hari 1 comment

7/30/09, 1:30 pm

I’m writing this in the car again – we are headed into Southern Croatia, eventually to Dubrovnik on the coast, the ‘pearl of the Adriatic’ according to Lord Byron. The countryside could be classified as Mediterranean – lots of scrub, the occasional evergreen, low-lyiing hills, and squat box-like buildings built into them. Now is a good time to write about the places I’ve been so far.

I flew into Vienna on 7/21, from DC by way of NYC and London. My friends picked me up a few hours late, a consequence of road construction and traffic on the long drive over from Prague (things taking longer than expected has become a common feature of life on the road – despite the way our car eats km up, poor signage is common and we don’t always have clear directions on our atlas). I was pretty tired when they picked me up, so we spent the next day in Vienna while I recovered from the jet lag. Vienna is a beautiful and interesting city – lots of parks, lots of cool architecture and gardens. Of particular note was the butterfly house, a greenhouse with many different species of these colorful insects. There were many occasions where I saw a butterfly extending its long and delicate proboscis into the head of a flower or a piece of fruit, feeding before lifting off and fluttering away. I also enjoyed working my way through several hedge mazes located in the Palace grounds.

On 7/23, aD, T$ and I headed west towards Switzerland. Though away from our eastern callings, we had a few days to kill before picking up PP again in Vienna. The detour was well worth it – Switzerland is as beautiful as they say. We experienced alpine lakes, soaring snow-covered peaks (the Jungfrau), woods, brooks, and tourists! It’s easy to easy why this area is a playground of old Europe. In Lucerne, one of the towns we stayed at, we saw plenty of ads for paragliding, jumping (from planes and bungee-), river rafting, and zorbing (imagine being strapped inside a clear plastic ball, that is cushioned and itself secured inside a larger ball, and hurtling down a hillside inside it). Along with adventure sports, almost every Swiss town we passed through had its fair share of fondue (which we sampled one night, yum!), watch, swiss army knife, and fancy clothing stores. The latter seeem to be present in every European city and medium-sized town we’ve passed through so far – Europeans like to dress well I guess. We’ve saved a lot money thus far by staying in large public camping grounds, and the ones in Switzerland were particularly nice: clean, with hot showers, and laundry facilities. They’re also well-inhabited by lots of Europeans, with large tents (they seem fully-equipped, even with electrical hookups, folding chairs, tables, etc.). Our tents were much smaller than the average size here – but perhaps this reflects our own innate backpacking tendencies rather than any particular difference between American and European camping persuasions (it’s been years since I’ve been in an American camping ground).

(Intermission: took a break from writing as we stopped by Split, large coastal town on Adriatic. Lunched on fresh fish, olives, rice and wandered about the ruins of old Roman palace).

On our way to Switzerland, we also had our first brush with the law – we were pulled over twice by the German police. The first time, we had stopped outside a gas station jus as we passed Salzburg, Austria (birthplace of Mozart). Two men out of uniform but with guns and police IDs asked us to step out of the car, took our passports, and proceeded to search the car. They were polite, but serious, and they definitely seemed to suspect us of drug-running. They profiled T$, searching his bags but not ours – T$ admittedly looked a bit suspicious with sparse whiskers on his chin and Robin hood style hat. Of course, they found nothing and let us go. The second time, we were pulled over by Germans in a police car – they also started to search, but broke it off once we told them we had previously been searched the day before.

Other highlights of Switzerland: kayaking on Lake Lucerne, navigating the often frustratingly poorly-signed highways on our way to small Swiss towns, enjoying the groceries bought at gas stations (one of which also had a sex shop opposite the convenience portion of the stores – the prevalence of explicit imagery like this is far more accepted and prevalent in Europe than in the US).

On 7/27 we started the 860 km journey back from Switzerland to Vienna, where we were to pick up PP. This journey took us ~10 hours, longer as usual than planned, so we were ~3 hours late at the airport. PP, by this time, had enough – and had left to find his own accomodations in Vienna. We reconnected with him the next day, having communicated over email, and proceeded with him to Slovenia.

Slovenia is gorgeous – full of mountains, lakes, woods, and fields. It was also cool – a welcome change after the heat of Germany and Austria. The first night we stayed in the small town of Bled, in the ‘Julienne Alps’, a beautiful moutaintanous region in the Northern country. Bled is an interesting example of a small European town just starting to experience the evils of tourism. Although relatively unpopulated and pretty small, it has a beautiful lake in the middle of town, an island in the middle of the lake, and a castle overlooking the lake. However, the town also had a Casino, complete with tuxedoed waiters and cigar-smoking clientele, and the campground we first tried to visit was hardly a pleasant space in the woods. When we arrived, a staff member was blaring MC Hammer tunes and entertaining a large group children with a microphone.

Further south, we finished up our stay in Slovenia by visiting the awesome Skocjanske caves. These were much more impressive caves than the lava tubes in the Mt. St. Helens area (Washington state) that I had explored in my youth. The caverns were enormous – stretching 10s of meters high and hundreds of meters in width, sporting an underground river that snaked its way through the interconnected limestone, and complete with massive stalactites, stalagmites, bats, and guano. If you should ever find yourself in Slovenia, go!

- Hari

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Initial Meditations on the Trip, 07/28/09

July 28th, 2009 Hari No comments

4:30 pm, local time

I’m currently writing this while in the car, finally full with all 4 of us and our possessions. We picked up Peretz Partensky (PP) in Vienna this morning, and are currently en route to Slovenia – had thought first about heading to Ljubljana (the capital), but now may divert to a national park instead. The car, a 1994 Opel Astra, is a blue station wagon, currently stuffed to the gills with tents, backpacks, carbs of various kinds, ice (and regular) tea, pillows, various electronics including PP’s mini laptop that I’m writing this on, the walkie-talkies that PP and Tristan Ursell (T$) are chattering on while in the car, many more items of various functions, and the 4 of us (PP, T$, me, and Amand Dunn, aD, who is driving). I’m sitting in the backseat, and am cramped but oddly satisfied. There’s something great about heading towards a country you’ve never visited before, could only vaguely pinpoint on a map, and *not* having a set plan. Why the trip? Where are we headed? Will the car break down? Will we be able to tolerate each other for the additional 5 weeks that I’m here?

Impossible to answer all these questions, at least right now, but I’ll take a stab at the first. This trip originated as a thought of T$s – he saw the Mongol Rally website (google it!) and we started discussing the idea, more as a joke than as a reality. At some point I looked seriously into the possibility of attending the ‘actual’ rally, and got an ‘official’ spot. Various friends seemed interested in attending the event at various points in the trip-planning, but several bailed when it came to committing to the event.Over the last year, the trip evolved into its current state – a trip as far east as we can make it (to Mongolia, or perhaps beyond) in our respective time-frames (6 weeks total for me, more for the others), but unofficially, not part of the Mongol Rally so the trip is cheaper and more flexible than allowed by the rules of that rally’m sure we all have different reasons for the trip, ranging from the mundane (a somewhat unconventional summer vacation in Eurasia) to the more complex (pushing personal boundaries and comfort zones, exploring those peoples, cultures, and countries that most of us couldn’t easily identify on a map). I’m still working out myself why I’m doing this – for now, it’s enough to say that I desperately need a break between my postdoctoral days and my new ‘adult’ life as a PI at the NIH. Despite my best intentions, I still find myself thinking about microscopy and research while on this trip, although the liberation and excitement of exploring the unknown (no fixed destination, minimal planning) are uplifting and invigorating.

H|

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