Archive for the ‘Turkey’ Category

Another day another freighter!

Friday, January 30th, 2009

One of our new Izmir friends, Mustafa, works for the government and is somehow associated with Ulusoy Freighters. He was able to get us passage on a small (180m) roll-on-roll-off freighter from Cesme Turkey to Trieste Italy. This has been a huge help, and meant that we could spend an extra week in the Middle East and Turkey.

We arrived at the boat without any difficulty – looking into the harbor in Cesme, they are pretty hard to miss. We entered the Ulusoy office and the staff there processed our tickets. While we waited, we asked if anyone wanted to try out the bikes. One of the guys from the office was brave enough to give it a try, much to the amusement of everyone else in the office and the customs police too.

Several of the customs police in Cesme remembered us from our arrival in Turkey back in November. We guess our funny looking bikes provide a pretty good memory aid!

After clearing customs, we were escorted onto our ship, the Ulusoy 10. The ship had not started loading yet, so boarding was easy. One of the crew helped carry our gear up to the crew lounge while our cabin was being prepared. Originally they were going to give us two cabins, as the bed is only a single bed. Upon seeing the cabin (the 3rd mates cabin), which had a sitting room with a couch and a separate bedroom, we decided that we did not need a second cabin – there is plenty of room in this one for the two of us.

We have since learned that the Ulusoy 5 is better outfitted to take passengers, as it has extra cabin space for 10 additional people. The Ulusoy 10 only has 1 passenger cabin with 3 bunks. Given the economic downturn the ship is running with a skeleton crew of 19. Her normal crew compliment is 30. As a result, there is no 3rd mate, which is why we were given the spacious 3rd mate’s cabin rather than the smaller passenger cabin.

The ship did not start loading until after dinner. At 2 am, while we were fast asleep, it left the port of Cesme – so we missed a ceremonious departure from Turkey.

When we awoke, the ship was loaded and under way, with semi trailers filling about half of the main deck and fire trucks in the covered deck aft keeping our bikes company. The lower deck and the bilge deck are apparently full, but we haven’t been down to check.

By the afternoon of our first full day at sea (Thursday) the waves picked up. We passed through a few storms (wind, rain, hail) early in the afternoon and the waves continued on into the wee hours of the night. Both of us spent most of the afternoon reading and relaxing. We do wonder if we would have noticed the waves as much if we were still on the MSC Alessia – it is 300m long compared to the 200m of the Ulusoy-10. It reminded us of how lucky we had been on our Atlantic crossing with such beautiful weather. We can only hope our trip from Italy to Singapore will be so calm!

One of the biggest joys with being on the freighter is the ability to take a long hot shower. It may sound trivial, but after staying in so many budget hotels where the water may be solar heated or the heat only turned on for selected hours during the day, hot water is nice. Also, the shower head is not clogged or damaged and is affixed to the wall at a height that allows each of us to stand up straight and enjoy the hot water pouring over us. It is quite a luxury. There is no shower curtain, but we have become so accustomed to this that it isn’t a big issue. We just lift the toilet seat so it stays dry, and sweep the water off the floor into the shower basin when finished.

Like the MSC Alessia (and virtually all other large ocean-going vessels), waste heat from the main engine is used to run an evaporator, creating fresh water from sea water. It typically isn’t used for drinking, but provides virtually unlimited (18 tonnes per day) hot and cold fresh water for personal use. Large volumes of fresh water are use for cleaning, especially when pressure-washing the decks and other exposed surfaces.

On Friday with some calmer weather, we explored a little more. We were quickly invited onto the bridge and subjected to Turkish hospitality – coffee, tea, and interesting conversation. In the afternoon, the steward knocked on our door to let us know that cake was being served. Unsure where to go (the message involved the words Captain and cake), we went to the bridge where the steward brought us tea and some delicious banana, nut, carrot cake – yummy!

We also got a chance to see the campaign brochure from the AK Party candidate for mayor of Cesme. One of the crew had brought it on board, and it was quite interesting. The AK Party is the Islamic party in Turkey, and currently holds both the presidency and a majority of parliament. Municipal elections are coming up, and they are pushing hard to win in many places where they are not yet in power, especially in the coastal areas like Izmir and Cesme. The mayoral candidate for Cesme is a wealthy local architect, and has produced a 40 page glossy brochure with his vision for Cesme in 2015. It is filled with fanciful high rise buildings, glorious monuments and floating holiday islands – like Dubai on steroids, all up and running 6 years from now! We had a good laugh about this with the crew, but later Scott wondered how a candidate for a mainstream party could produce something so off-the-wall, and whether it would help or hurt his chances of election.

On Saturday, we arrived at 1330, but did not clear customs and immigration until 1500. This did not mean much, as our bikes were blocked by the fire trucks being shipped to Italy, so they needed to be unloaded before we could depart. By 1730 boat time (1630 local time) the upper deck was clear and we could proceed into Trieste. With darkness soon approaching and no Internet in sight , we found an inexpensive 2 star hotel for the night – it was quite the luxury to have heat, two sheets, unlimited hot water, and an enclosed shower stall all in the same hotel room! We were surprised at the comforts that we had become accustomed to doing without over the past several months.

A brief visit with our friends

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

After a short visit to Aleppo to see Fadi and pick up our bikes (2-nights), a short taxi ride from Aleppo to Antakya (3-hours), and a long bus ride to Izmir (18-hours) we were glad to be greeted at the otogar (bus station) by Metin. Unfortunately, it was pouring rain, so our ride back to Metin’s apartment was a little on the soggy side. It was raining so hard that the streets were not draining, so we rode through many giant puddles. Fortunately, it was 15 degrees out, so we were not at all cold. Our wet-weather gear proved to be up to the challenge though, and with our feet in front of us they were high enough not to get splashed by puddles. It was only when Becky stopped suddenly that Scott put his foot down in a puddle, he got a soaker.

The unexpected warm spell lasted throughout our visit to Izmir. For the most part, the rain also stayed with us throughout our visit. It seems every time we come to Izmir it rains!

Looking back, we didn’t actually do that much, just relaxed and enjoyed spending time with friends. In both Aleppo and Izmir it was surprisingly comfortable to be back someplace we understood, even if it wasn’t home. Even knowing where to buy groceries, or how to get around is a big deal!

Saturday evening we were taken out to dinner and traditional Turkish music. The band played many songs that our friends knew well. It was especially amusing to watch Metin and Mustufa belt out a song or two with the band. Scott caught the band’s attention with his vigorous drumming along with the music, and they were greatly entertained. The girls enjoyed a little bit of dancing at our tables. All-in-all it was a really enjoyable evening – Becky enjoyed a little too much Raki, making the next morning a little less fun (oops).

Sunday evening we were invited to Gul’s parent’s home for a traditional southern Turkish dinner. They made an adaptation to the meal to not have lamb so that Becky could enjoy it. The raw meat ball dish (Cigkofte (Cheekufteh)made with potato rather than lamb) was particularly yummy. The other specialty was Lamachun (pitas with spread made of peppers, meat and onions?) with lemon drizzled over top, and wrapped around various greens. It was neat to meet Gul’s family, although with our limited Turkish Gul and Metin were stuck translating much of the time. Becky also enjoyed playing with Gul’s brother’s new puppy.

On Monday, Becky cooked a traditional Canadian dinner of Hungarian Chicken Paprikash (it is traditional at our house anyway), and baked chocolate chip cookies. The cookies were especially delicious.

On Tuesday, Mehmet came back from another interview in Istanbul, so we got a chance to visit with him as well.

Tuesday evening after work, we went out for goodbye beers at a local pub in downtown Izmir with many of the friends we made in Izmir. It was so nice of everyone to come out and say farewell. We really enjoyed meeting everyone and are so grateful for all the help we received throughout our time in Turkey. We will definitely plan to come back sometime in the future. We also extended invitations to come visit us in Canada, and hope that they will come visit sometime and let us return some of the hospitality.

Busing in Syria

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

Taking a long-distance bus in Turkey is a very civilized experience. Buses in Syria are less refined, but much more of a cultural experience. We never know quite what we’re getting into. We have not yet (and likely won’t) perfect the ability to catch the best bus between two places. We did managed to avoid a scam in Homs and take a nicer bus than our morning bus out of Palmyra.

Smoking on buses in Syria is not only allowed, and the rule is enforced – unlike many other places we’ve been – even on the local buses. On our small bus from Palmyra to Homs, someone lit up a cigarette. Our initial thought was that this was just like Turkey, Greece and Italy where a table with ashtrays might be located right below a no-smoking sign. We were surprised when seconds later the bus attendant came over and talked to the person smoking. This quickly escalated to shouting back and forth and it was clear that the attendant was prepared to have the driver stop the bus and kick the smoker off in the middle of the desert, miles from anywhere. Fortunately, the smoker extinguished his cigarette and put it away. It was truly delightful to see the rule actually enforced!

The first lesson about taking a bus in Syria, is to arrive early at the station (Karajat – sounds like garage) and take your time. Inevitably someone will try to rush you, because their bus is leaving in 5 minutes. This of course means that you are not looking at any of the other buses who may also be leaving in 5, 10, 15, or 20 minutes. If you have the flexibility to take a smaller bus, then you will have a lot of options and no need to rush to the first people that you see. That being said, the smaller buses are often filled beyond capacity, so you may get a seat but there may also be people standing or sitting in the aisle.

The bus we took from Palmyra to Homs was arranged by our hotel. The bus (a minibus) stopped right in front of the hotel to pick us up. The attendant evicted two people from their seats, so that we could sit down – since the hotel had reserved a seat for us, it was ours. We were also paying a tourist premium (likely of 25 SYP), which we guess a portion will go back to the hotel somehow. The bus was full enough that 3 younger men stood for part of the trip and sat on the floor for part of it. The ride from Palymra to Homs was about 2 hours.

Unfortunately, the minibus from Palmyra arrives at a different bus terminal than the large (Pullman) buses that leave for Aleppo. This meant we needed to take a taxi across Homs. We did have a couple of offers of a minibus ride to Aleppo, or possibly a service taxi, or perhaps just a ride to the other terminal for 100 SYP each. We couldn’t quite tell what they were offering, but have gotten wary of people approaching us as we get off the bus to offer something. Scott wanted to take the 2.5 hour journey in a Pullman bus, so we decided to take a taxi to the other terminal. We have gotten wise enough to not take a taxi directly from the bus terminal – rather we walked out of the terminal and then flagged down a taxi. We found a taxi that used a meter and he took us across Homs to the right bus terminal, pointing out some key sights in Homs along the way. It was a rather long ride, but with the meter running, we felt we got a fair deal.

Upon arriving at the second Homs terminal, just outside the doors someone in a rather plain uniform claimed to be police and demanded our passports. Scott complied. He checked the passports, then asked where we were going and if we spoke Arabic. When we said we did not speak Arabic he gave our passport to his friend who ushered us to a desk and stamped out tickets for us and asked for money – 300 SP each, too much for the bus fare. We said no, that he wanted too much for the bus tickets. The person with our passports put them down for a minute and Becky immediately snatched them back. Once we had our passports it was easy to walk away from this scam. We quickly found the washrooms (a priority at the time) and then found a quiet place to sit, have a tea, and strategize about how to get our tickets from Homs to Aleppo. We decided to talk to Al-Alihah, a company mentioned in our guidebook, and whose buses looked both good and plentiful. Without any pressure, Scott was able to get us seats on a Pullman (full size) bus for 140 SP each, which felt downright luxurious after our last two bus rides.

The bus from Aleppo to Antakya turned out to be another challenge. We asked many companies at the Aleppo International bus terminal, and coincidentally all the buses left at noon (all the big buses that is). One of the companies told us that they are all actually selling tickets for the same bus. You don’t actually buy the tickets until the bus arrives, and we found out why. The bus never came! Apparently this is a Turkish bus company, and they only run the bus when it looks to be full enough to be worthwhile. We waited for an hour after its scheduled arrival time, and eventually realized it wasn’t coming. There was a mini-bus from another Turkish company (HAS) leaving, but they could not easily take our bikes. They suggested that they could strap them to the roof, and would charge us a 1000 SP fee for doing so, on top of 250 SP each for the ticket. We opted for a taxi and with the help of Dani and Fadi, managed to get one for a reasonable price, 2000 SP. This made the drive to Antakya less than 3 hours including the customs and duty free stops. As we travelled we saw at least two other Turkish buses headed to Damascus, so it may be easier to get a full-sized bus directly from Damascus to Antakya.

Scott made good use of the Turkish-English dictionary given to us by Wendy and Peter, since the driver only spoke Arabic and Turkish. We managed a few conversations over the course of the drive, and the driver drilled us on our Turkish numbers. Unfortunately, we still can’t count past 5 🙁

The area between Aleppo and Antakya was much greener than when we were here in December, with plants sprouting in the fields, and even the hills of no-man’s land were green. Quite the contrast from our ride last month.

Convoy to Syria

Monday, December 15th, 2008

48 km, 3.5 hr

We decided to team up with Wendy and Peter for our ride between Antakya and Aleppo. From our various discussions, it appears that we move at about the same speed (that is in km per day), and they were willing to take the ride to Aleppo slowly to account for our time off the bicycles. This is the first time since our ride into Trois Rivieres that we have ridden with other cyclists. We were looking forward to the company.

Our ride from Antakya to Aleppo began late in the morning. Since we did not wish to cross the border today, we only needed to ride for a few hours. Our plan was to camp one night, get up early the next morning, cross the border and ride into Aleppo. We were looking forward to cycling and camping again, but Becky was afraid that it might be too cold. With the early darkness, the nights are very long.

Once we were on the bikes, it did not take long to receive our first offering of Chai (tea). Since we were eager to get on the road, we respectfully declined that offer and a couple of others that happened while we were riding. When we stopped at a gas station to get fuel for Peter and Wendy’s stove, we were delighted to accept the chai that was offered. It did not take long for us to see the attraction of riding around Turkey with a fully loaded bike!

At about 1 pm, we were looking for a place to stop for lunch. Becky was starving and in need of something to eat. She noticed a road with a couple of nice cement blocks for leaning bikes at the bottom of a big hill, so we stopped. With a quick look around, we noticed that the land on both sides was military. Becky grabbed a quick chocolate bar, and even before she could finish eating it a person in military uniform carrying a large gun told us to go – we could not stop there. With the energy from the chocolate bar, we climbed the first big hill of the day, which brought us to the town of Reyhanli.

We had heard of a hotel in Reyhanli and decided to check it out, just in case we could not find a place to camp – with all the military around, wild camping would not be easy. We looked into the hotel, but it was a real dump. It would do if we couldn’t find anything else, but we still had an hour and a half of daylight left, so we decided to continue down the road looking for other options.

After another 5 km, we saw a place where transport trucks were parked with a restaurant. We stopped on the side of the road to converse. Within about 30 seconds we heard whistling and were being motioned to move along from someone in a military lookout tower on the other side of the road. We quickly turned into the transport truck terminal. Wendy and Peter had a note in Turkish asking if we could camp on the land there. The drivers were very friendly and welcomed us. They said we could camp anywhere within their large compound. They also invited us for tea and offered us use of their shower.

The truck drivers

The truck drivers

After a tea, as the sun was beginning to set, we found a good place and setup our tents. As we were enjoying a warm drink at our campsite, one of the drivers came over with his cell phone. Wendy and Scott had an opportunity to speak to his 13 year old daughter on the phone. Her English was not bad, but the connection was poor, so it wasn’t much of a conversation.

After supper, Wendy, Scott, and Becky went to the restaurant for a cup of tea and a brief visit with the drivers. The news was on, so we were able to watch as a journalist from Iraq throw a pair of shoes at George Bush. Showing the soles of your shoes is very rude in this area of the world, so this was intended as a significant insult. A comparison was drawn between today and five years ago, when the head of the giant Saddam statue in Bagdhad was dragged through the street and beaten with shoes. Wendy had her trusty Turkish-English dictionary so we were able to ask a few questions about driving trucks in Turkey and the drivers were able to ask us questions about us and our trip. The dictionary was a handy tool and allowed us to have a much more meaningful conversation than we would have had without it. We plan on finding a similar small dictionary for Arabic when we get to Syria.

By 8 pm, we were all tucked into our sleeping bags. It was too cold for reading, so we were soon fast asleep.

Becky, Wendy and Peter, huddled around our cookstoves

Becky, Wendy and Peter, huddled around our cookstoves



Sunday, December 14th, 2008

Any time you are off the bike for a while and don’t have a kick to get back on (like being dumped off of a boat in the middle of a foreign country!), you must overcome a certain level of inertia. Way back on July 5th, before we left home, we posted about how we needed to overcome the inertia that we keeping us at home. We have had very similar feelings in Antakya. We needed to figure out some kind of plan that would get us back on our bikes and heading into Syria. This time, our challenge has been colds, weather, and daylight. At this time of year, it gets dark at around 4:30 pm. After dark, the temperature drops, sometimes to below freezing. Add to this the large distances between indoor accommodations making camping a necessity and we may need to do some re-thinking of our itinerary.

We hopped on our bikes for a quick 30km ride today, and both felt great, so we’re looking forward to riding again. We’ll see how it goes!

Our current plan is to ride to Reyhanli (about 50 km) on Monday. Reyhanli is within 10 km of the Syrian border. On Tuesday, we plan to ride to Aleppo. Once we reach Aleppo, we will have a better sense of what shape we are in for riding and what it is like riding with the cooler days.

Reports from other touring cyclists who have crossed the border in the last few days indicate that the crossing is quite easy and quick. Since we already have our Syrian visas, it should be even easier.

A few days in Antakya

Saturday, December 13th, 2008


Our first hotel in Antakya (the Seker Palas Oteli) tested us. It was clean and we asked what we thought were all the important questions – the one question we forgot however was “do you have heat?” The answer apparently was no! They also did not have Internet, and all the Internet cafes in town closed at 6 pm. As a result, we climbed into our sleeping bags and were fast asleep by 8:30 pm.

Cabbage and Kufeke desserts

Cabbage and Kufeke desserts

We had planned on a couple of nights in Antakya to rest (Scott has a bit of a cough and cold), and to allow all the Bayram traffic to subside before heading to Syria. Since the room was just too cold to be habitable, we decided to move to our second choice hotel (slightly more expensive), the Hotel Saray – which is clean but also has Internet and heat (but apparently not until after 7 pm – which means it is chilly from 4:30 pm when the sun sets until the heat kicks in at about 7:30 pm). The first room they sent us to was on the uppermost floor backing onto the hamam. Unfortunately, this meant that the smoke from the hamam chimney went directly into the room – the room also smelled badly of cigarette smoke – probably because the window could not be opened for fear of hamam smoke. We were then relocated to a room on the second floor (North Americans would call it the third floor). The room we are in is small, but it does not back onto the hamam and it is clean and mostly scent free.

The lack of regular hot water does help to explain why there are many hamams in town. In our wanderings, we have seen at least three in the downtown area. If the majority of affordable hotels do not have regular hot water, and many homes only have solar hot water, than the hamam would be your only source of a hot bath during the winter months.

A less busy spot in the market

A less busy spot in the market

Antakya does not feel like any of the other places we have been in Turkey. The city is a tourist destination, but not so much for Europeans as for those from the Middle East. The primary reason people come here is for shopping (the ocean is 80 km away). The market is so large that when we exit it, we are lost and need to re-establish our bearings. It is at least 5 streets wide and 8 streets long, with lots of little alleys! The items being sold are primarily textiles and housewares. Unlike the Izmir and Istanbul, there are very few touts shouting at you trying to separate you from your money. The prices seem to be fixed, such that Becky has been completely ineffective at bargaining – that being said, the prices are also so low that there is no reason to complain either. Bargaining doesn’t seem to be as much a part of the culture / game as it is in Southeast Asia.

In the first couple of days, it appeared to Becky that more than 80% of the women were wearing Hijab. Interestingly, Scott did not have the same impression. We think this is partially because Becky was walking around the markets on her own – in a different part of town. The area closer to the first hotel is much more conservative than the more central area near the second hotel. There may also have been more women dressing conservatively whilst doing family visits for Bayram. As are stay progressed, we saw less and less women wearing Hijab.

Becky modelling her new headscarf

Becky modelling her new headscarf

What has been a real difference here compared to Goreme is that we are seeing women. Even in the more conservative shops in the market, the women are present. Becky had a fun time (with Scott’s help and encouragement) picking out a head scarf. We went into one of the shops where the sales staff were mostly girls in their late teens / early twenties. Becky was totally nervous about doing this, and had passed by the shop earlier in the day when she was on her own. Once we entered, we selected a scarf and one of the girls dressed Becky up and then given a lesson on how to dress herself. It was rather amusing given that there was very little shared language. Becky’s lack of colour coordination and some of Scott’s scarf selections were a source of many giggles.

Antakya also has some special foods that are influenced by its proximity to the Arab countries. In particular we have enjoyed more of the sweet pastry with cheese (Kufeke) and we tried a new dessert that is a candied cabbage with tahini drizzled over it.

We made a quick stop at the Antakya Archeology museum. Neither of us are very interested in archeology, but our guidebook mentioned that this museum has one of the best collections of mosaics in the world. We definitely enjoyed seeing the mosaics. We were also amused with the common practice of posing behind one of the headless statues. Becky couldn’t resist making Scott pose.

Scott as a Roman statue

Scott as a Roman statue

We also had some fun in the sarcophagus room taking self portraits. Because flash is not permitted, we used the trick of placing the camera on a flat surface and taking a time delayed shot. In this case, the flat surface was reflective marble, adding a reflection to the photo.

On Friday night, we heard a knock on our door. A couple of other touring cyclists from the UK, Peter and Wendy, had pulled in and planned to spend a couple days in Antakya. We have had a few discussions with them and have learned a few key tricks from their experiences (like how to cook your own dinner in a hotel room). They too are heading to Aleppo, and are also taking their time to experience various locations along the way. Their final destination is Australia in about two years time. I suspect our paths may cross a few more times before leaving the Middle East.

Spinning dough for Kufeke

Spinning dough for Kufeke

Interesting Roman sarcophagus

Interesting Roman sarcophagus


Iyi Bayramlar

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

After a brief bus ride, we arrived in Kayseri – home of Metin’s parents. We were met at the bus station by Metin and Mehmet, who had arrived in Kayseri earlier that morning after a 12-hour drive. They had brought their three mountain bikes on a rack on their rental car, but unfortunately only one of our recumbent fit on the rack. Mehmet seized the opportunity for a longer ride on Becky’s bike, and rode the 10 km to the home of Metin’s parents.

Metin’s parents have a beautiful apartment in Kayseri. The ceilings are over 3 meters high, and every room has beautiful crown moldings. With such high ceilings it is possible to have chandeliers that don’t look overwhelming and are high enough that there is no risk of banging one’s head into them. Quite the contrast from typical apartments and apartment-condos in North America. We are beginning to understand why living in an apartment block is so much more popular in other parts of the world.

When we arrived, Scott shouted up “Iyi Bayramlar” to Metin’s mother (rough translation: Happy Bayram), much to her amusement. People in Turkey are happy for any attempt by foreigners to learn Turkish, so our limited attempts almost always result in a smile or giggle.

Bayram slaughter site in Kayseri.

Bayram slaughter site in Kayseri.

We were invited to their home to join the family for their Kurban Bayram celebration. Fortunately, Metin’s father took care of the morning excitement (the actual animal sacrifice). Our only responsibility was to enjoy the plethora of great food that was place in front of us, and smile and nod when people came to visit.

Kurban Bayram is the Festival of Sacrifice or as our friend Mehmet likes to call it “The Victim Festival”. It is also translated as the “Feast of Sacrifice”. In Arabic it is Eid Al-Adha. In Turkey, it is a 4-day holiday. This year, because the entire holiday occurs during the week, most people had a 9-day holiday (including the weekends). The festival celebrates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac to God (Genesis 22:1-24). A key part of the festival is the sacrifice (slaughter) of either a sheep or a cow. People join together to purchase an animal (always an odd number of people). Each person’s portion of meat is divided into three – one for the poor, one to be shared among neighbours and friends, and one for the family. Often this provides the family with meat for several months. The other important part of the festival is the opportunity for families to visit one another. Both the first and second day of the festival are filled with visits between family and friends. Each visit involves an update on how everyone in the family is doing.

Shortly after our arrival, Metin took us on a drive around Kayseri. When we drove by one of the sacrifice locations, we insisted on stopping to take a few pictures. Scott was braver than Becky and got a little bit closer. In Kayseri (as in other cities), it is not permissible to sacrifice animals in your yard or garage, you must do this at a designated slaughter location. In Goreme, being a small town, we saw several people chopping up sheep on their front lawns. The most common time for slaughter is the morning of the first day of Bayram, but some people are slaughtering on the second day as well.

Metin, Gul, Mehmet, and Becky with the Whirling Dervish.

Metin, Gul, Mehmet, and Becky with the Whirling Dervish.

As we were driving, we passed a large fiberglass whirling Dervish. We had to get out of the car and have our picture taken – since it was unlikely we were going to see real Whirling Dervishes while in Turkey, Becky just had to have her picture taken (and do a quick whirl) with the fiberglass one! It turns out the Dervish was at the entrance to the graveyard that housed the tomb of Seyyid Burhaneddin, one of Mevlana’s teachers . Mevlana is more commonly known in the western world as Rumi – poet, philosopher, musical composer, and founder of Sufi sect, including the Whirling Dervishes. It was supper cool to go and visit his tomb.

Our evening was topped off with a wonderful Bayram dinner – unfortunately it did not occur to us to take a picture (oops). Both of Metin’s parents are excellent cooks, with Metin’s father specializing in meat and sweet desserts. The cooking and baking had been completed before we arrived, or Becky would have spent the whole time in the kitchen trying to learn from the experts.

For every Kurban Bayram the local news is filled with the same three stories:
1 – A cow gets loose and runs through traffic. Many men run around chasing the cow until it is caught.
2 – The emergency rooms of full of men that have either been stepped on or kicked by an animal or who have cut themselves while butchering the animal.
3 – Car accidents caused by too much traffic.
We got to observe #1 and #3 on television, but #2 we also got to see first-hand experience. One of the Bayram visitors to Metin’s parents had cut himself rather badly during his sacrifice.

On Tuesday we drove up to the hills just outside of Kayseri where Metin’s family has a house. This house is treated similar to how we would treat a cottage in eastern Canada. The family spends most of their summer up at the house, which has many gardens and several fruit trees. We were even able to sample some of the wonderful produce.

The twins - Scott and Metin.

The twins - Scott and Metin.

During our visit we walked around the hills that have many memories for Metin. We had to get a picture of Metin posing at his favourite rock, and another with his “twin”. Upon arriving in Kayseri, Metin’s mother commented that Scott and Metin looked like twins (minus the glasses and hair colour). As a result, we had to get a picture of the twins together.

Our dinner up at the house included a tradition dish of Kayseri called Manti that is a small pasta with an envelope of meat (like a really tiny ravioli) in a tomato sauce on which you add yogurt. This was followed by freshly barbequed Kebabs.

Shortly after dinner, the decision was made to get home quickly. While we were eating it had begun to snow pretty heavily. We wanted to get home before the roads closed. Fortunately, snow is not foreign to Kayseri, so both Metin and his father knew how to drive in it. As we were going down a hill towards the city we saw an overturned van. We guess that he must of hit some black ice on the way down. We were glad to get home safely.

Our evening ended with being dropped off at the bus station, at the last moment as usual. We said our good-byes and hopped on the bus to Antakya.

Mehmet, Metin, and Gul – thank-you so much for all your hospitality. You have helped to ensure that we really enjoyed our time in Turkey. We hope to visit you again in January – and we hope that someday you can visit us in Canada. It will be a challenge for us to show you the same hospitality you have shown us, but we’ll try!


From the bottom to the top of the world

Saturday, December 6th, 2008

Scott actually got out of bed at 7 am and went out to take some morning pictures. Becky was amazed, as lately he has had difficulty getting out and moving in the mornings. In the early morning, the sky is filled with hot air balloons. Apparently, it is supposed to be an incredible way to see the valleys, but at a minimum cost of 100 Euro for 45 minutes, it is well beyond our budget. All the colourful balloons in the air over the town do make for some great pictures.

Our plan for the day was a trip up to Derinkuyu to see the underground city. It is the most thoroughly excavated underground city (there are many underground cities in the area), and you are able to see parts of the 8th floor (underground) and much of the upper floor. Getting to Derinkuyu involved taking two Dolmuses (mini buses), one to Nevsehir and then a second onto Derinkuyu. While waiting for the bus in Goreme, we met an America lady, Lee, who asked if she could join us for the day. Of course we said “no problem”, and had an great day travelling around with her.

Lee is a business librarian from Atlanta on a six week exchange through work, teaching some courses at university in Istanbul and exchanging information with librarians. Because of the Bayram holiday, she has a week off and so decided to come and see Cappadocia.

Upon arriving in Derinkuyu we noticed a large bustling market, so we walked around to check it out. The market had everything from fruits and vegetables to blue jeans and shower curtains. On the outskirts of the market there were lambs and cows – a special bonus because of the upcoming Sacrifice Festival. We were amused because at this time of year at home, you would see Christmas trees on the outskirts of markets. Here you have live animals. Who knew that on this adventure of ours we would be trading in Christmas Trees for animal sacrifice?

Walking through the market we noticed that the town is much more conservative than the cities. Most of the younger women that were out where dressed conservatively and wearing Hijab. What we notice in Goreme is an absence of women. There are women present, but the proportion is much less than the number of men we see. At our Pensiyon we see the father, his son, and grandson, but we never see any of the wives.

After walking through the market, it was time for our adventure to the bottom of the world. The underground cities date back to at least 1000 B.C. and some say even earlier than that. The caves were known to be inhabited at least 6-months at a time, as a refuge against persecution. We paid the fee and entered the cave at about 12:00. Our guidebook told us to arrive before 11:00 to avoid the tour buses – however, we just don’t move that fast. With it being winter, we have not found the tour buses to be too bad and are usually able to completely avoid the crowds. According to the people at our hotel, now the buses start appearing at 9:30 anyway, so no matter what we wouldn’t have avoided all of them.

We entered the cave and began working our way down. Becky was definitely feeling a little claustrophobic and kept trying to “forget” about the amount of rock and earth above her head. She led Scott and Lee down – with the thought that the sooner we got to the bottom, the sooner we could move back up again. We came upon a room which had a staircase going down. Not long after we entered, a tour group started coming up. The stairwell was technical bi-directional, but really there was only room for people in one direction. The first guide told us it was crowded down there and we should wait. We were happy to let the group clear out before we went in. In the end, it turned out that there were three tour groups down at the bottom level at the same time – we could only imagine how packed it must have been. When we got down there, there was only us and another small group of about 7 or 8 people.

The bottom cave had a church. It did not really look like much, except that the cave was shaped like a cross. Also from the bottom level, there were several smaller caves that were accessed by narrow one-way stair cases. We were glad there was not a large group down there with us. The whole time we were on the lowest level, Becky was paranoid that we would get stuck in one of the small caves at the end of a staircase because a large group of people would block access to the exit. Fortunately, that never happened, and soon enough we were on our way back up to the higher levels.

We also explored various caves that involved climbing through poorly lit tunnels, fortunately we had our headlamps with us. We found one passageway which was completely unlit, and low enough that entry was only possible completely bent over, and followed it for a few meters. After some twists and turns, the light reappeared, and we had a quiet area of caves all to ourselves. We sat there and chatted for 20 minutes or so, and when we emerged there were no signs of other visitors. The tour bus group which entered just after us must have bypassed us while we were hidden away in our quiet corner.

As we climbed back up, Scott was thinking “that’s it?”. It really did not seem like much, but as we worked our way towards the exit, we found many more cave rooms, including the stables, wine press, dining hall, and a school room. It felt like we could get lost in the maze of caves; however, they have blocked off various areas, so you generally do not end up back where you were without retracing your steps. Several times we thought “have we been here before?” only to discover a whole new room that we clearly had not seen yet. Becky ensured that we systematically explored each nook and cranny, going clockwise around every cavern that we entered.

Once we had thoroughly explored the caves, it was time to re-emerge to the light of day. We found a nice bench and enjoyed our snacks (buns and oranges) before hoping back on the Dolmus to Nevsehir. Since we still had daylight left, we decided to check out the rock formation that sticks out above Uchisar (the Uchisar Castle). The formation can be seen on the horizon from many places in the Cappadocia valleys.

We arrived in Uchisar just in time to find the castle and make our way to the top just before sunset. The view was spectacular! We could see many of the valleys throughout Cappadocia. At the top, there was a group of women sitting and holding their hands in a prayer position. At sunset they began to chant. We did not recognize the language they were speaking, and could not tell if their chanting was Christian or Southeast Asian (although they were Caucasian women, so Becky’s guess is Christian). They were still meditating when we left, so we were unable to ask them.

As we climbed down from the castle, the muezzin made the adhan (Call to Prayer). Being on the hill, you could hear the call echoing in the various valleys below. It was beautiful.

We decided to look around Uchisar a bit and possibly find a restaurant for dinner. Lee wanted to see some of the hotels as the guidebook recommended Uchisar as an alternative to the backpacker haven that is Goreme. We found that many of the recommended restaurants and hotels were closed for the season, but we did stumble upon the Cappadocia Cave Resort. It looked quite luxurious, so decided to go in and ask if we could see a room. This was mostly Lee’s influence, she and Becky were much more enthusiastic about the idea than Scott, although he came around eventually. They obliged us with a complete tour of the facilities. It is quite a beautiful hotel with an amazing view down into the valleys of Goreme. Apparently, they get many Japanese customers as they even had a small Karaoke lounge and a sushi restaurant. The spa was interesting too – in addition to the normal pool, hamam and steam room, they also had a snow room (with ice machine) and a salt room where walls were covered in salt and a machine atomized the salt (good to help Asthma apparently). Upon departing we asked about the price for the standard room – a whopping 330 Euros per night! We could not believe the excessive price tag. The place was nice, but really we could not see anything that warranted that much of a difference from the prices in Goreme. We’re paying 50 Lira (approximately 25 Euros), and the CCR isn’t anywhere close to 10 times as nice.

Since we did not find any place interesting to eat in Uchisar, we decided to head back to Goreme for dinner. Upon reaching the Goreme road, we were told that the Dolmus was finished for the night – the same person also offered to give us a ride for 10 Lira. He refused to bargain on the price – we offered 8 Lira. So, we decided to walk a bit and then hitch a ride. We walked about a kilometer to a bus stopped and hitched a ride from there (Goreme is only 6 km from Uchisar). Upon arriving in Goreme we saw the last dolmus arrive – so the person who told us they were finished had lied and was clearly looking to make a few Lira from stranded tourists!

We had a lovely dinner at the Orient Restaurant. Having three people instead of two opened up our options for sharing Meze and a bottle of wine.

After dinner, we needed to find a way to get Lee back to Urgup where she was staying. We confirmed that the dolmuses had stopped for the day. It was only 8:30 pm! At this hour, the taksis (taxis) know that there are few options, so they charge a fortune (30 YTL for 6km). Lee decided she wanted to try her luck hitching a ride. We walked her to the intersection of the Urgup road and waited with her while several cars went by. Eventually someone did stop. He thought he was picking up all three of us – which is probably good. We hope that Lee got back to her hotel safely.


Mountain biking in the land of hobbits

Friday, December 5th, 2008

12 km.

Uchisar castle in the distance.

Uchisar castle in the distance.

We had a pretty slow start to the day, mostly sleeping in, and figuring out what we want to do with the rest of our time in Goreme. We decided that we would try renting mountain bikes in the afternoon and check out some of the valleys near Goreme.

We got some decent bikes, but both felt rather uncomfortable at first. It took a while to relearn the different balance on the bikes. Becky originally led us to a path that was much too technical for us, such that we were “taking the bikes for a walk” more than mountain biking. Fortunately, after a few kilometers on less challenging terrain, we were able to get the feel for the bikes and tackle some of the smaller ups and downs.

Scott biking through a tunnel.

Scott biking through a tunnel.

Riding through the fairy chimneys and cave dwellings makes you feel like you are riding through the land of hobbits, especially when you consider the short doors and low ceilings inside the caves. Eventually, we found some signs that led to a cave church (we were actually trying to get to Rose Valley, but we never actually made it that far before we ran out of daylight and energy).

The fresco in the cave church.

The fresco in the cave church.

We followed a trail that led to a café and a church. Once we arrived (after climbing a few sets of stairs carrying the bikes), we paid the small fee to see the church. If we had arrived earlier in the day, we would have enjoyed a cup of tea at the café; however, after seeing the church we really needed to get down out of the hills before darkness fell. Becky was amazed at the church which seems like it is in the middle of nowhere, high up in the hills, but if you think about how people lived throughout the hills in the various caves, you can see that the church would have been close to some dwellings.

In the end, we were reminded that we both enjoy mountain biking, but the muscles used are very different from riding a recumbent. Also, Becky was reminded that her recumbent biking shorts do not provide adequate padding for a regular bike (ouch) – if we do it again, she’ll need to borrow a pair of Scott’s shorts!

View from the cave church.

View from the cave church.


Cave Churches and a bike ride

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

28 km, 2.5 hours

Nunnery at Goreme open air museum

Nunnery at Goreme open air museum

We began the day with a walk up to the Goreme open air museum , one of the best collections of cave churches in Cappadocia. The first set of dwellings you see upon entering are the nuns quarters. This large multi-storey cave structure looks an awful lot like Disney’s Magic Mountain. Unfortunately, due to instability, we were not permitted to enter the building.

When we entered the first church, Becky commented that the holes in the floor looked very much like coffins/tombs. Scott did not believe her, but eventually discovered that they were indeed coffins. Becky found it pretty creepy that we were walking over the remains of people as we entered most of the churches.

Another beautiful fresco - repeated in many of the churches

Another beautiful fresco - repeated in many of the churches

After seeing the first couple of churches, we were not too impressed. The simple red drawings on rock seemed look like the art work of a child. Where were the amazing frescos that we had heard so much about? We then discovered the Dark Church. This was an additional 8 Lira to enter, but was well worth it. The frescos were painted on plaster rather than on rock, and were much more impressive. These frescos had been restored, but other churches with similar plaster frescos were also quite beautiful.

In the churches, all the faces in the frescos have been scratched out. When we first saw the scratched out faces, we thought it had to do with the rise of Islam and a prohibition against the depiction of the human form for purposes of worship. Becky asked a tour guide who happened to be in the Dark Church at the same time as us. She said that in the 1920s the towns people felt that they were being watched by daemons. As a result, they scratched out the eyes and faces of the murals in all the churches in the area. It had absolutely nothing to do with Islamic prohibitions. There goes another compelling theory!

Scott, Becky and a fresco in the Apple Church

Scott, Becky and a fresco in the Apple Church

After our adventure in the museum, we got organized and went for a bike ride. This was our first real bike ride since leaving Italy, so we were both feeling rather rusty. The colder weather also poses a bit of a challenging, Becky had a hard time getting her layers just right. Given the hills and the uneven pavement, we did not too bad. We did realize that loaded riding to Kayseri on Monday is an unrealistic plan, we need to get back into shape before trying a 60km ride through the hills with a deadline. The scenery around here is awe inspiring, but also steep. We plan to do some more biking around while we are here, so we can see more of the stunning rock formations and start getting back into biking shape.

Scott stopped in a bike lane - the first we've seen in Turkey

Scott stopped in a bike lane - the first we

After our ride, we were both starving, and decided to try a set menu at “Kale Terrace Restaurant“, which promised a clay pot dinner. We had clay pot a few nights ago, and it was quite good – a stew, cooked in a clay pot, then broken with a hammer at our table. Unfortunately, tonight the “clay pot” meal was reheated in the microwave, and the sauce was both greasy and contained lamb, despite promises of “all beef”. Given Becky’s allergy to lamb, this has been our worst meal in Turkey. Our lesson for today – don’t eat the set menu if it’s really cheap, and you can avoid it.