Part Three of Four

From Italy to Eastern Europe, via the Balkans and the Middle East. A year-long backpacking trip.

This humble corner will attempt to serve as a travel journal of sorts, cataloging all the ins and outs as, whatever way and in whichever direction the mind meanders, the body does likewise. Likely, if you have arrived here, you know me, and know at least some of the details of this trip. Irregardless, welcome, fellow traveler.


Chronological Order:

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

Part Four:


Egypt :: Cairo

on Feb. 6, 2009

As my plane lands in Cairo Intl. Airport the shell of what used to be a plane glides by the window, scavenged, destroyed, or otherwise no longer functioning like new. Welcome to Egypt. I am immediately paranoid and avoid talking to ...

Nile City, Cairo Cairo, Egypt

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Mosque in Cairo, Egypt

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Mosque in Cairo, Egypt Old Town in Cairo, Egypt Cairo, Egypt

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Cairo, Egypt Al-Hussein Mosque, Cairo, Egypt

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Camels at Giza, Egypt Pyramids at Giza, Egypt

Egypt :: The Desert

on Feb. 11, 2009

An early morning and a rather abysmal negotiation with a taxi driver lands me at the bus station in Cairo, and soon I am en route to Marsa Matrouh, way up North on the coast. A quite stop to drink tea with the locals and I continue on to Siwa Oasis, ridiculously far from Cairo and only 80km or so from the Libyan border. The bus stops at sunset at a little cafe in the middle of the desert, in the ever infuriating chai break, every two hours or so, of any bus ride in Egypt, but soon enough pulls into Siwa, where I am quickly offered a taxi service to the hotel of my choice. The "Siwa 4x4 Taxi" service, the only game in town, is certainly unique.

Taxi Service, Siwa Oasis, Egypt

By day it is a bit of a dusty town stuck in the middle of nowhere. Not quite the palm tree filled oasis I was imaginging, but beautiful. The old mud-brick citadel stands on one of the two rock formations standing proud in the town center.

Siwa Oasis, Egypt

I sit down for lunch in a little restaurant and am quickly introduced to a Bedouin safari driver - he's headed out for some sort of adventure later that afternoon, and already has a few people. Skeptical, to say the least, I decline, but as I am walking away realize that I had wanted to do something like it all along and refusing was an exercise in stupidity. I trudge back and shake some hands, hand over my passport to get "permissions" from the government, and set a date to meet at 2 in front of Abdu's, the local hangout. By 2:30 I am a bit worried, and it is around this point that I realize I have given my passport to some Egyptian guy whose name I don't know and with whom I have no way of getting in touch. Humanity is good, I suppose - he shows up in a brand new Land Cruiser a few minutes later and I pile in the back with four guys from the university in Alex. For the next few hours we zoom around the sand dunes, careening down dune faces a few hundred metres tall while blasting Egyptian techno, swimming in hot springs, sand boarding (!), and cooking up chai on the fire. Night finds us in a giant Bedouin camp, eating dinner, smoking (the local specialty is hashish), dancing and singing around the fire.

Bedouin Party, Siwa Oasis, Egypt

Why not? The next morning I rent a bike and have one of my most satisfying days in Egypt, puttering around the Oasis. I stop at a few of the highlights on the ridiculous hand-drawn tourist map, some ancient ruins and a castle. I zoom by the Cleopatra Spring and spot a blond girl lounging in a hammock at the spring-side cafe and decide I am a bit thirsty for a nice mint tea. She turns out to be from Canada, on the beginning of a trans-Africa (Egypt to S. Africa) trip, but has been working at the cafe for a month, living in a mud-brick house, bicycling to work every day. What a life. She, a few weeks from now, will turn out to be a terrible influence on me, but that is later. For now, she recommends a ride out to Fatnas "Fantasy" island (it's not actually an island) for the sunset, which is beyond beautiful.

Fatnas Sunset, Siwa Oasis, Egypt

I run into her again that night for a dinner at Adbu's before jumping on the overnight bus to Alexandria - twelve hours of freezing cold misery, packed like sardines with all the Alex kids heading back from their long weekend holiday. Alexandria itself isn't quite what I expected - different from Cairo, more modern, western, less chaotic, and less of what I think of as Egypt. The gardener of the fabled Library of Alexandria (modern vision):

Library of Alexandria, Egypt

I meet a guy from Alex in the library who convinces me I should stay and teach English - I get the feeling I will be on the recieving end of quite a few job offers. Must be careful, could spend the next six months living in some desert oasis instead of traveling around the world. People seem to have a tendency to get stuck in Egypt. I take the train back to Egypt through the Nile Delta to Cairo en route to the other four, Western Oases. I forego my previous hideout of Wake Up! Hostel in favor of trying something new - the aptly named Australian hostel (yes, full of Australians). My roomates are two cute Australian girls, one of whom is torturing a guy from Texas who, due to newfound religion, cannot have sex, and a guy from South Africa in town for rather vague reasons. The four of us watch a bit of porn on his computer before hitting the hay - the strangest night I've ever had in a hostel? Quite possibly.

I jump on the bus out to Oasis #1, Bahariya, which doesn't make it into the photostream, but was a pretty nice place. I spend a day walking around, get a ride with an alfalfa farmer on the back of his donkey cart, meet a handful of safari drivers anxious for my money, and spend a night out in a desert camp with a Belgium guy who regales me with tales of the beauty of prostitutes in Prague. The desert is a strange place. The next day I am off to Oasis #2, Farafra, which for anyone thinking of going there is a must skip. I am in search of a week long camel trek out into the desert, with no goal other than riding around and getting lost, but it proves more elusive than I had hoped. In the end, Farafra (home of two hotels, one cheap and one expensive, and a tourist police force so bored they are happy to escort me anywhere and everywhere I might want to go) must be escaped. The only way is a minibus, filled with locals, out to Oasis #3, Dakhla. My first long distance minibus experience, an excrutiating four hour ride with the never-ending scenery of sand. Sardines.

Microbus ride, Farafra to Dakhla, Egypt

In Dakhla I run into Zarif (of Cairo pizza fame), traveling with Anna from Austria, a girl who seems to speak a dozen languages, including Arabic. We get a tour around the oasis with the son of the hotel owner, Sameh, sit down for some tea with a group of old ladies (lesson learned: when greeting the man of the house, never have your legs crossed, put your feet flat on the ground, and dear god stand up when shaking hands - have some respect), careen about the sandy streets as Anna tries to learn how to drive manual on Sam's ancient land rover, and go swimming in a hot spring at midnight under the stars. And, Zarif tries to steal a puppy from some local kids. (They offer to sell him for 10 LE).

Zarif Stealing a Puppy, Dakhla Oasis, Egypt

Away from the main city in Dakhla, Mut, is Al-Qasr, an old Islamic city mostly abandoned, filled with amazing doors, windows, and all manner of good photos. Not sure what this is.

Al-Qasr, Dakhla Oasis, Egypt

A bit of the true "oasis" feel as well. The photo doesn't quite convey the gaggle of boys chasing after me, shouting a neverending stream of hello's and what's your name's.

Dakhla Oasis, Egypt

Last is Kharga Oasis, #4, home to the center of the New Valley government (the "Old Valley" being the overpopulated Nile, from which the government is trying to relocate people out into the "New Valley", i.e., the middle of the desert where it is tough to make any sort of living). A bit big, and modern, I wander out into the desert to find some sand dunes.

Kharga Oasis, Egypt

The desert is where I learn the "Egyptian price" of things. For instance, that locals buy three taamia for 1LE, whereas in Cairo they cost a tourist at least one each. One of the most infuriating things about Egypt is definitely that price is a subjective thing, based on your ability to bullshit first and foremost. Inflation for tourists I estimate between 5-10x for literally everything sold and every service rendered. Kharga also marks the beginning of the ubiqutous sweet stands, on every street corner and always filled with indulgent locals.

Sweets Stand, Kharga Oasis, Egypt

From Kharga I hoped to head down to rejoin the Nile and the land of green at Luxor, but learn that the brand new highway leading in that direction is, of course, bereft of any sort of public transport. The only option is another microbus up to Asyut, halfway between Cairo and Luxor, a no man's land where the Egyptian government is less than happy to see any tourists go. In fact, on the train from Cairo to Luxor it is virtually impossible to get off anywhere in the middle. I arrive, local style, and am under the police radar until I walk up to the train station in search of a lift down to Luxor, at which point the AK-47 touting tourist police spot me and freak out, shouting and running towards me. I am soon in possession of my very own, heavily armed, police escort. So Asyut is, in theory, a center of fundamentalists not all that happy with tourists or Westerners in general, but what a joke. They demand I wait in the cafe at the train station for the train, but I decide to go for a bit of a walk, and my escort loosens up a bit when I buy us a pair of fresh orange juices. The train, it turns out, is full. But not to fear, they are adament about my departure and quickly locate some hapless Egyptian man, remove him from his seat, and plop me down in his place. I spend the next five hours on the train sitting next to his buddy, while he stands (he refuses the seat back). Oh well, goodbye to Asyut. The Egyptian government is a bit paranoid I think - the "tourist trail" is heavily enforced here, though all so easy to slip out of.

I have left the desert.

Egypt :: The Nile and Sinai

on Feb. 25, 2009

Across the river from touristy-beyond-belief Luxor is Ancient Thebes, home of some of the most impressive funerary monuments in Egypt. To cross to the West bank you must avoid first the boat captains, then the taxi drivers, and then the bike rental kids. Then the ticket office, for a separate ticket to each site, and most unhelpful. Then the guards, at each tomb and temple, who first demand you relinquish your camera (to be returned only upon receipt of a small tip), and then give an uninvited escort/tour (with the expectation of a small tip). Of course, as with most things in Egypt, the caveat is that it\'s worth it. Coming out of a tomb in the Valley of the Queens, the guard and his cubbyholes for cameras:

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Also amazing, the Habu temple, Deir al-Medina, the awesome-sounding Valley of the Kings (including King Tut\'s tomb, for an extortionate price, and the rumor of some tomb that costs $10,000 to enter). Holy light at the "Ramesseum", which for some reason is mostly skipped:
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Day one I spent hiking around, getting funny looks from people as they cruised by in their air conditioned tour buses. I wasn\'t alone though, you can spot backpackers a mile off as they walk through the desert, refusing any more expensive mode of transport. Day two, and I have reconnected with Gillian, the Canadian girl I first met in Siwa Oasis, who appeared randomly at breakfast one day at the Bob Marley House Hotel. Yes, that\'s where I stayed. Picked, from a long list, because it had a cool name. We are sucked into a private boat ride across the Nile (for the same price as the public ferry, 1LE, why not?) whose captain, funny enough, has a brother that drives a taxi, and a friend that owns an alabaster shop. And, we made the acquaintance of an old man with a hut on the side of the Nile ("The Cave") which seemed to be the place where all the guys came to drink beer (not allowed) and hide from their wives. Good times pretending that Gillian and I were married, or at least a couple, anything to slow the barage of marriage proposals she got from every direction. Enough said. It was an expensive day. After some interesting adventures in Luxor, involving the Kings Head Pub and Red Lion Disco, and my first experience riding on a motorcycle - balancing a box (..) of beer on the way back. I didn\'t want to tell the driver, who didn\'t really speak English in any case, that I never had before and had no idea how to not fall off. I managed. After way too long in Luxor with the Bob Marley crew, we made the train down to Aswan, home of relaxation, and feluccas:
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This fine chap rowed up to me while I was exploring Elephantine Island, bringing with him a lunch gift of falafels. Amazing - I hope he made it through the armada of feluccas setting sail at sunset. Aswan included a 4am tour down to Abu Simbel (40km from the Sudanese border, not pictured) well worth the torturous ride and the crowds. And, who could possibly go to Egypt and not go on their very own felucca ride down the Nile? Our "3 days, 2 nights" sailing extravaganza took place, on the recommendation of the crew from the Bob Marley House, on the Bob Marley Home felucca. Captain Bob, naturally (not his real name). The love Bob Marley down here. Our group: myself, Gillian, Bryn (another Canadian we pick up and I am unable to shake off until after Turkey!), and Melissa & Shawn (Canadian...). Still, good times, even if it was more of two days floating down the river, as slowly as possible, and not doing all that much sailing.
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As we disembark we are picked up by a friend with a microbus whom we convince to take us to a nearby Camel market - the second largest in Egypt, I believe, other than the large one outside of Cairo. "Not for the squeemish, or PETA types." Indeed. Still, quite beautiful.
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Next stop on our impromptu microbus tour (en route back to Luxor) is the Temple of Edfu, which is nothing special after a dozen similar temples (one does get templed out, similar to churched out in Italy), but provides some gorgeous photo ops.
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I don\'t stay the night in Luxor, opting instead for an overnight bus up to Suez. Which, unfortunately, arrives just early enough for me to get ripped off by a taxi getting out of the bus station and in time to watch the first container ship glide through the Suez Canal at sunrise. Not bad - I\'m a bit tired though, and only hotel I know of is closed at 5am. When they finally do open, I crash for a quick nap, and am awakened by what seems to be a riot at the front door, people are shouting and trying to get in. The owner politely explains to me that they want food... no idea how that makes sense. He cracks the door and I dart out - no one seems to care. Later, watching the sunset, I befriend a big group about my age picnicing nearby. After hanging out for awhile they propose a coffee, or somesuch, and I drop my wariness as the group includes women - no Egyptian scam could possibly involve women. As we are leaving the group dissolves and pretty soon it is just me and four guys walking away - to get stopped, within ten seconds, by plain clothes police officers (pistols stuck in the back of their jeans), demanding identification cards from all the guys, writing down their names on a list. "Just for my protection", the guys tell me. Of course the police speak no English. They demand my passport - but I\'ve conveniently left it at the hotel, ish. Immediate flashbacks to Assyut - the government really doesn\'t like locals interacting with tourists. All in all, this does get me a bit worried, and by the time the coffee plan changes to "come see where I work" in some sketchy office building, I am once again paranoid. The workplace appears to be some sort of timeshare selling scam (targeted at Egyptians), it is a big room filled with tables where sales people are selling who knows what while techno pumps in the background and free drinks go all around. I almost refuse the chai - who knows, maybe this is a 100 euro cup of tea I\'m accepting. But, I don\'t, and it\'s not. So it turns out well, even if I do bail as soon as possible and have unfortunately forgotten the name of my hotel (I\'m queried over and over again, though I just point in a vague direction). I don\'t think maybe tourists come to Suez. I\'m screwed on the taxi to get back to the bus station when I leave. Suez wasn\'t my favorite. Sharm el-Shiek, on the tip of the Sinai peninsula, is a different story. Almost always avoided by backpackers, because it is "package tour land", home of all kinds of tourist ridiculousness, I nevertheless make a stop for a night. In the local youth hostel, which looks like a palace (it has a chandelier in the giant reception - I refuse to get out of the taxi, not believing that he has actually taken me to the hostel, until he walks me in) and is filled exclusively with Egyptians. Budget travel I suppose. Sharm, itself, is absolutely gorgeous. More gorgeous, naturally, than Dahab, the backpacker hangout up the coast where I am headed next. But, the main beach is also segmented off into private little sections with admission costs and loud music. And, Russian girls dancing in thongs. Apparently most Egyptian guys think Sharm is heaven on earth because they can come here and see girls in bikinis. At sunset, all the diving boats returning to harbor:
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Oh, Dahab.
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I spent 10 days, plus or minus. Doing what exactly, I\'m not sure. Of course, this is the thing to do, "get stuck" in Dahab. I do manage to learn to scuba dive, getting my Open Water certification (down to 18m, which feels pretty dam deep when you\'re looking up at the surface). Though, this only takes four days. On either side my time is spent reading, getting sunburnt, drinking milkshakes, eating delicious breakfasts, etc. Standard Dahab fare. I do make it out to a sunset trek up to the top of Mt. Sinai. Some sort of biblical significance, I can\'t help there. Gorgeous scenery though.
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Part of my procrastination is my cute British dive instructor. A bigger part, though, is that the day I leave I\'ll have to figure out the ferry and cross, finally, into Jordan. It feels just like leaving Greece for the unknown of Egypt. Now, Egypt seems like second-nature to me, I am comfortable getting around and know, as much as a tourist can in 7 weeks, how things work. Jordan, though, is an unknown.

Jordan

on Mar. 24, 2009

Another reason for my procrastination when leaving Egypt - I had overstayed my visa. At worst, deportation (I thought it unlikely). Second worse, the demand for a letter of apology from the US embassy (also unlikely, though the book says it is a requirement). At Nuweiba I do my best hello+smile at the border official who has been smashing exit stamps in passports all day long in a neverending queue, hoping perhaps he won\'t just notice. No such luck. He frowns at it, at me, at it, and then sends me away, over to some little office. Inside they frown at it, then at a calendar, ticking days off on their fingers. More frowning, and the shake of a head. No good. They scrawl something on the back of my exit slip and tell me to head to some other office, outside the border control zone. This is the real deal, I enter and am the second person already inside. "What are you in for?" I joke, but get no reply from the other captive. I cross my legs and get shouted at by the military guy behind the desk to put my feet flat on the ground. Oops. Now, I have carefully prepared two excuses. The first, based on ignorance, is saved for second. The second, based on technicalities (i.e., if "a month" actually means 31 days, and a "two week grace period" actually exists, then I may be, plus or minus 24 hours, not actually over my visa). The guy behind the desk finally grabs my passport, and pulls out his own calendar. After a minute of consultation, he makes it quite clear what is going to happen. "You stay too long. You pay fine, and get on boat. No pay fine, you leave [the port]". The fine - 155LE, fifteen euros, and I don\'t even attempt an excuse. It is now 2pm. During the next three hours I wait for the "fast ferry" to depart, and make the acquitance of Anna and Matt (the Kiwis), Jason and Kellie (the Aussies #1), and Jason and Mymy ("mee-mee", the Aussies #2), my traveling companions for the next week or two. At 5pm we finally get on the shuttle out to the ferry. By 8pm the ferry is in motion, we think. By 11pm (after the "two hour ride") we arrive at immigration in Aqaba, Jordan. By midnight, on the other side, we begin to hear a deafening roar which turns out to be a literal mob of taxi drivers, who have waited all night to fight over the few tourists which appear. Long story short, we arrive in Wadi Musa, the town just outside Petra, around 1am, and crash at the first hotel that will have us. Petra is nothing short of amazing - I spend two days just hiking around. After negotiating the kilometer long entranceway valley, twisting through the multicoloured rock, you are greeted by the Indiana Jones site itself, the Treasury: jordan01 The inside ceiling of the Treasury: jordan02 Another awesome sight is the Monastery (it should be said that there was no treasure in the Treasury, and whether or not anything religious occured in the Monastery is questionable): jordan03 We are told about an awesome hike through a flooded gorge - wear shorts and sandals we\'re told. Kellie, Jason, and I set off on the second day, to what I imagined would be a wide open gorge with knee deep water - at most. Instead, we find an incredibly narrow gorge, barely wide enough at times to fit through, filled with pools of murky water, of unknown depth though some definitely containing random shards of metal and other nasties. We veto the walking through the water plan. Instead it is a mad scramble, bracing against the walls on either side (always close enough to be able to reach both by two outstretched hands) and trying not to fall in. The guys succeed (my favorite part, perhaps, a sandy rock face where the advice is "let go, and just before you slide off the edge, jump"), the girl gets a little wet. It is instantly one of the most fun times I have had hiking on this trip, and makes me want to go rock climbing when I get back. Saying goodbye to Petra the seven of us agree to a tour down to Wadi Rum, the desert in Southern Jordan. A short bus ride and then we are separated from our bags and piled into jeeps (one of which requires all the tourists inside to get out and "push", one of two English words the driver knows, in order to get it started) to cruise around in some gorgeous landscapes. jordan04 The sights include the house of Lawrence of Arabia, though we get into an endless debate about whether it was his real house, or the house used for the movie (filmed on location, here). We spend a night at the Meditation Camp in the middle of the desert, complete with a neverending supple of rosemary Bedouin tea and food cooked underground and dug up to eat (only a little sandy). The view from our camp, out across the plain: jordan05 We ask where the best place to watch a sunset is, and get directed up to the top of a mountain. The descent/scramble as the light fades was a bit tricky, but worth it. jordan06 To leave the desert we are at the mercy of the bus cartel (rather, the single bus that operates between the highway and the camps). On our way in we ask about just getting transport to the highway, instead of all the way back to Petra, and get some dirty looks, and a finger randomly pointed at Kellie, Jason, and I, to the effect that the bus for tomorrow is suddenly full, and there isn\'t room for the three of us. The others, no problem. We try to bribe a jeep driver to take us out to the highway, but no dice, and we end up back on the [not full] bus. He vows that catching a minibus on the highway is impossible, today, at this time, for a million reasons. There is one waiting there for us when we arrive, and he agrees to a price that was impossible to get (according to the bus driver). Of course, he takes us only to "ma\'an", instead of "amman", and we get into a little tiff about the money, but it all works out, and soon enough we are in Amman, the capital. A place of which, I realize now, I have absolutely no pictures of. So perhaps Amman wasn\'t one of my favorites, but there were some interesting adventures in the environs. First, to the ruins of Jerash. jordan07 And yes, they do a full recreation of Roman chariot races and infantry marching and battle tactics. What I thought at first was sure to be lame, but when at least thirty guys marched out (and three chariots) I have to admit it was rather impressive, at least from the distant hill where we were watching for free. jordan08 The next day, we call up a taxi driver whose number we have acquired, who agrees reluctantly to illegally take the five of us for the day. Jordan is no Egypt - things are crazy expensive, and rules seems to matter. We are often refused for taxis when there are more people than seatbelts. We hit up the Dead Sea for a quick swim, mud slathering, and view of Israel... jordan09 ... before heading to a nearby hot springs in the mountains to rinse off and have the local guys stare at the tourist girls. Finally, Mt. Nebo (of some religious significance again, who knows, the Pope was here recently). All in all, a good day, though I can\'t say I\'m looking forward to tomorrow. In our hotel there is a Kiwi girl who has just returned from the Syrian border, after being denied entry, which doesn\'t exactly inspire confidence with my passport from the good ol\' USA. Still, as I\'ve gotten closer every person I\'ve met has had nothing but praise for Syria, and now I am really hoping I get in. The backup plan, if I get rejected, is the middle finger to Syria by checking out Israel, and then a hopover flight to Turkey. Hopefully it won\'t come to that.

Syria :: Damascus

on Mar. 31, 2009

Why does Damascus get its own post? Well, it is an amazing city, undeniably worthy, and also because after my time was up I immediately ditched Syria for a quick trip into Lebanon. And I got in. Now that the surprise is spoiled, to backtrack. We take the cheapest possible way to the border - taxi service to the bus station, a local bus to Ramtha (the "old" border), and another negotiated taxi service across the border to the nearest Syrian town. Our taxi driver asks for nationalities, and isn\'t pleased that I am American, but I know the drill. I assure him that he doesn\'t have to wait for me, only get me to Syrian border control. He makes it clear that he isn\'t going to wait. We pile in (illegally, five) and roll out of Jordan without incident. Our taxi screeches to a halt just after passport control and just before the final checkpoint on the way out to buy a few cartons of cigarettes. He rips open the box, stuffs the cigarettes under the seat and in the glove box, and tosses the box into a dumpster as we speed off. The entire dumpster is overflowing with empty cigarette carton containers. As we get our passports checked for the last time by two members of the Jordanian military, wielding ridiculously large guns, they smile and laugh at me. It is the two couples in the backseat, and me in the front, backpacks piled on top. Where is my wife, they want to know? Is the driver my wife? They think so, and find this quick funny, as do my companions, me not quite so much, but this is no time not to smile. We speed off and look back, the military guys are bent over, crackling up. So much for the stoic facade. We cross no man\'s land, a few kilometers of winding road, before reaching Syrian border control. There, the Aussies (with visas obtained, dutifully, at home) are stamped in without question. The Kiwis are sent on a five minute walk to the bank to buy their visas, and are then waved in. I hand over my passport, retrieve my bags from the taxi, dump them on the floor and take a seat. We set a rendezvous at a hotel in Damascus, and with that I am left alone - good thing I brought lunch. Five hours later, during which time I have not asked a single question about what may or may not be going on, I am waved over by an official who tells me that I now, too, can walk to the bank and buy my visa. Irony? For Americans, a Syrian visit is 16 dollars. For Kiwis, 60-something dollars. This is, more or less, exactly what I expected to happen. I am surprised that there is no interrogation. In fact, I am never asked a single question, about why I am here, about why I didn\'t have a visa in advance, about any potential visits to Israel. I had been told that they might even look through your luggage for evidence of an Israel trip, such as ticket stubs or Israeli sections highlighted in a guidebook. No such drill. I get the impression they are more or less accustomed to the American backpacker showing up unannounced, and although it may be official policy that a visa must, absolutely, be obtained in one\'s home country prior to arrival, reality seems a bit more relaxed here. I hijack someone else\'s service taxi on their way through, and am escorted for free to the local bus station. With my newly acquired Syrian pounds, courtesy of the border bank, I buy a ticket for Damascus, and a few hours later arrive at Hotel Al-Amin where I am reunited with the traveling budies. That night, some wanderings through the bazaar, one of the most fascinating places I have been yet on this trip. Anything you could want, sold here. A sweets vendor: dam01 The Old City in Damascus, for once, entirely lives up to my expectations. And, there are no tourists. Everything here seems to cater to the locals, and we are more or less treated as such (or ignored) everywhere we go. The architecture of the old buildings quickly fills up my camera card. dam02 So there is a bit of the modern, my "Neon Mosque." But, when you hear a call to prayer and everyone actually goes, all the guys crowding inside, those that arrive too late lining up outside on rows and rows of flattened cardboard boxes, you can forgive the modern. dam03 And, our hotel is filled almost exclusively with Iranian families. Apparently, it is a big month-long holiday in Iran, and a favorite place to come is Syria. All it takes to make some friends is to sit down in the living room, accept a glass of chai, and make a few attempts in the Arabic I\'ve picked up in Egypt. So the conversation doesn\'t last, but you are quick enough an accepted part of the boys club. Assuming, of course, you\'re a boy. I\'ll forego here any cliche observations on women in a conservative Muslim society - perhaps later. Spices in the bazaar: dam04 And, the food! People have said that the food just gets better and better as you go North, from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and finally Turkey. Jordanian food was good. Syrian food is amazing. (For the record, Egyptian food is crap). Right next door to our hotel is a guy that sells scoops of ice cream for 5 pounds (50 SYP to the dollar). World famous pistacchio ice cream is available in the bazaar. And, we locate the world\'s best kebap. One of a million curiosities, at least to me, the make your own perfume gig: dam05 We stroll by, on accident, and at twilight, a Mosque, and I glance inside. It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen - and when we get back I pull out a map and vow to return the following night at sunset. Well, two nights later, we make it. The Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Grand Mosque of Damascus, lives up to its name. Wikipedia tells me it is one of the oldest and largest in the world, and the first mosque a pope ever visited (in 2001, to visit the head of John the Baptist, contained within). One picture is better than a million pictures (which I took), or a million words. dam06 The next morning it is finally time to say goodbye to the Aussies and Kiwis, as I veer east into Lebanon with the time to spare that they lack.

Lebanon

on Apr. 4, 2009

After paying my 500 SYP exit fee, I am happily granted a tourist visa for Lebanon for the reasonable price of 15,000 Lebanese pounds. On the bus from Damascus to Beirut I meet Manuel, a Cuban guy living in New York and working for the BBC World Service. When we arrive he wips out his cellphone and looks up the numbers of all his Lebanese friends, and we spend the next three days enjoying their neverending hospitality and exploring some fascinating parts of Lebanon. The country, coming from Syria, is quite a shock. Beirut is supposedly the "Paris of the Middle East", and as the bus passes a lingerie billboard-ad featuring a naked woman with underwear around her ankles I definitely get the impression that we\'re not in Syria anymore. Walking around Beirut I cannot quite believe the number of beautiful women, also walking around, showing hair, ankle, and in all manner of scandelous dress. I am basically back at home. Our first night we make it to what in Turkey is called a meyhane, a big restaurant where the drink and smoke flows freely, live music starts up sometime around midnight and shortly thereafter the whole restaurant is filled with dancing, clapping patrons. The Lebanese definitely know how to have a good time. leb1 I suspect that having a good time is the escape from the reality which is much of Lebanon. I can\'t even begin to grasp the complicated history which is Lebanon, Israel, and Syria. Wikipedia helps. Conflict here has been recent though, as recently as May 2008, when Hezbollah "took control" of Western Beirut. We are told about the "war of the banks" where fighting progressed through downtown from one highrise bank to the next. One still stands, full of massive holes from mortar rounds, amid brand new skyscrapers and dozens of cranes in the most active building campaign I have seen in any city. The statue in the main square, downtown, is riddled with bullet holes: leb2 It is strange, the entire city is brand new, until you walk five minutes out of downtown and find entire neighborhoods of rubble. A work in progress. Where there has been progress, though, things are expensive. Beirut is easily as expensive as San Francisco, and they obviously feel that it deserves inclusion with the big boys: leb3 Although there aren\'t quite as many Ferrari\'s or Lamborghini\'s as I was told to expect, the streets are more or less entirely covered with 7-series BMWs, Porsches, and California-large SUVs. Lebanon must be near the top of the list of countries where the rich are ridiculously rich (and the young rich need to show it), and the poor are ridiculously poor. Also, all the young people here speak English, even amongst themselves. French, second. Arabic, third. We discover, one night, the underground drag racing club on the sea-front highway, expensive cars doing donuts in the streets without a care in the world for police. Which there are none. Only military. Lebanon is also the country with the highest military presence I have seen. Every major street corner is occupied by the military, and not just a guy with a machine-gun (like in Egypt), but a tank or two, with camo tarps thrown over it, guys on top manning some death-dealing contraption, with razor wire and those strange double X-shaped steel things which remind me of the D-Day landing scene in Saving Private Ryan. We are told that the military here is "actively targeted" here, mainly by Hezbollah. I get the definite impression that pulling out your camera anywhere near a military checkpoint is a sure way to get shot. One of Manuel\'s friends, Nalia, takes us for a day trip up into the Chouf Mountains, where the majority of people are Druse (you\'ll have to google all that on your own), on whose wartime displacement she worked on as a thesis at Cambridge, only to have all her research stolen. Just as we are about to leave we pick up a third backpacker, an American guy, who Manuel knows from Jordan. He stops off quickly to get a jacket, and as soon as he steps out of the car Nalia confronts Manuel. She is convinced that he is an agent of Mossad, the Israeli Secret Police, here gathering intelligence about Southern Lebanon - an area which Israel has invaded numerous times. She apparently had such an experience before, having taken someone into the mountains and showed them around only to have them pull out military-grade maps of the region. This place is real. I almost wrote bizarre, but real is more accurate. Things that seem bizarre and ridiculous elsewhere are simply reality here. That said, we convince her that he is not, indeed, Israeli Secret Police, and after we meet a Druse family and he gets into a wrestling match with their 5 or 6 year old son she is obviously won over. Syria was the first country I visited with an active U.S. State Department Travel Warning. Lebanon was the second. The U.S. believes that the most dangerous part of Lebanon is Tripoli, in the North, and that the Eest is relatively safe. Nalia says that there is nothing wrong with going to Tripoli, but that the valleys in the Eest are the heartland of Hezbollah, and she would never travel there. Information is only relative, I suppose. In the East, for good or bad, is Baalbek, one of the most important Roman ruins in the Middle East, which is deservedly impressive. And, some guys chase after me trying to sell me a Hezbollah t-shirt. I don\'t think it would be wise to wear a t-shirt around covered in Arabic promoting who knows what, especially in Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, or well, anywhere. Shortly after, as I am trying of how I am going to get back to Beirut, a rather suspicion looking minivan pulls up to me with two or three guys gesturing at me to get in. "Beirut?" I ask, and they nod. I jump in without a second thought - just how transport in these parts works. The underground museum at Baalbek: leb4 I also make it to Tripoli, where nothing at all seems amiss (there was a bus bombing in Aug, 2008), and reunite with Jason and Kellie, the two Aussies, for a night. The day trip from Tripoli is to the famed Cedars of Lebanon, up in the mountain. Which, for me, were a bunch of trees surrounded by snow I had to walk through, so not all that thrilling. Bsharri, the mountain village, is also home to the museum of Khalil Gibran (Lebanese, and born here), whose stuff I started reading at the beginning of this trip courtesy of mom, so I made a voyage to the quite strange museum. Strange man, I gather. Bsharri is beautiful, though, and it is ski-season here. leb5 I could have stayed in Beirut forever (well, money aside), and it is now a contender with Damascus for the top place I would like to return to to learn Arabic. Decisions, decisions, but for now it is North, out of Lebanon and back into Syria, for even stranger times.

Syria :: The North

on Apr. 9, 2009

I had hoped that the receipt slip from my Syrian exit fee, together with successful entry and exit stamps for the country, would expedite the process of getting back in for a second time. No such luck - I wait another five hours, and they don\'t like my choice of "Lattakia Hotel" in Lattakia. They list me off options where tourists must typically stay: "Sheraton, Marriot, ..." none of which I can afford. The third time they ask I catch on that they just want an acceptable answer, so officially I will be at the Sheraton in Lattakia. On the minibus to Lattakia I meet several Syrian guys, none of whom speak English, one who makes a point with his two hands. It takes me forever to figure out it is a roof - he is inviting me back to his house to meet his family. And probably stay. I decline, politely - I haven\'t become used to Syrian hospitality yet. The next day I am on the bus en route to the Crac des Chevaliers, a nice little crusader castle, when everyone starts shouting and I turn around to see smoke boiling somewhere out of the back. When boiling water floods down the floor and out the door I decide it\'s steam, and by the time we hurriedly evacuate I can barely see inside. My first broken down bus of the trip! We are assured that the company is sending another bus to pick us up, but even so, guys start bailing immediately, flagging down minibuses and disappearing by the twos and threes. I hold off, and after an hour a bus finally arrives, but only enough room for the women and children. I feel like I\'m on the Titanic, even though I\'m just sitting on the side of the road. By the time I finally make it to the Crac there is only an hour left, but perfect timing for what has to be the best castle/fortress of the trip. syr01 With a inner and outer wall, moat, keep, towers, spiral staircases, and vaulted chambers, what more can you ask for? syr02 I refuse to pay the exorbent price for a ride down the mountain to the highway, trying my luck instead at a free lift. The car that eventually stops is some ridiculously looking contraption with two guys in the front seat, who motion me into the back after asking where I\'m from and seeming satisfied with California. I pop open the door to discover five (and one more on the front, on the lap) little kids staring at my curiously. They all crowd over to the other side, piling on top of eachother, while I have the entire other half to myself. They warm up to me quickly, as their father(s)(?) prod them into trying out their fledgling English on me. My ride to the highway (8km) turns into a ride all the way to Tartus (80km), where they assure me they are headed, but as soon as we get there they find the minibus station for me and head back the other way, to Homs, a hundred kilometers in the other direction. Syria is, above anything else, full of genuinely nice people. This is probably one of the biggest differences as compared to Egypt or Jordan. There are tourists here, of course, but only some, and almost never big groups. The people seem entirely disinterested in extracting money from tourists, and are instead genuinely curious about who we are, where we\'re from, what we think of Syria. And in my case, what Americans in general think of Syria. Only once does my American status leave me in limbo - a guy at the bus station in Lattakia asks where I\'m from, and my California reply elicts a "America? America no good." response, a shake of the head, and walking off. No one else ever said anything negative about America, though I suspect they may have a slightly different opinion when talking to other nationalities (i.e. my soon to be Canadian traveling buddy). I make a quick jaunt out to Palmyra, way out in the desert, the gem of Syria\'s roman heritage. The guidebook presents an ominous warning about the buses dropping tourists off outside of town at some hotel, friend of a friend, very Egyptian style. I can\'t quite believe it when we roll to a stop and the driver motions the tourists off (myself and one other) while all the locals stare at us, waiting for us to get off the bus. The hotel manager is standing outside, waiting for us, and our bags are already unloaded. It is exactly as it was described to me, what a scam. I admit that Palmyra must be the one tourist trap in Syria. But I\'m not staying the night, so I grab my bag, toss it back under the bus, and climb back on, asking for the otogar (bus station). I feel a bit sorry for the other chap, but he is beyond saving. Palmyra is worth it though, a beautiful setting for another few hundred Roman columns. I\'ve seen quite enough Roman columns, I think, by this point. syr04 My favorite part may be a dog who ran up to me and flopped down on top of my feet, and as soon as I started moving away he would jump up, run over, and flop down right in front of me again. I have video. I catch the last minibus out back towards civilization, running after it as it pulls away, and the driver tells me some price (150) but some other local helpfully informed me earlier that the correct price was 108 (a strange number I thought). I tell him the right amount and hand it to him - he just looks a bit flustered as all the other locals in the bus burst out laughing and clap me on the back. I get thumbs up from the back seat, and smiles all around. Well done. From Lattakia I head across to Hama, famous for its huge waterwheels and the sound of their groaning, creaking revolutions. syr03 In Hama I meet up with Bryn, of the Captain Bob Felucca Adventure, and we will travel together, on and off, for the next two months. After the Quest for the Perfect Falafel is successful in Hama we head up, the next day, to Aleppo, in northern Syria. Aleppo may not be quite as perfect as Damascus, but the Old Town is still beyond amazing. syr05 We find the sketchiest neighborhood possible and wander around looking for the cheapest hotel - 3.5 euro a night. Unfortunately, we only get to stay two nights - that night we practice what will become our favorite activity in Syria, sitting on a bench. Doing so draws Syrians to you, curious, genuine, and just wanting to talk. We meet three guys studying at the University of Aleppo, and agree to meet them the next day at the medicine faculty cafe. Universities, we\'ve decided, are generally a good place to see the most beautiful girls in any city. The three guys are Kurdish, and the next few weeks of this trip I learn more than I could have ever imagined about Kurds, Kurdish culture, and the dream which is Kurdistan. This part of the world is more complicated than I ever would have thought - Kurds are a minority in North Syria, Eastern Turkey, Northern Iraq and Western Iran - all want their independence and all, in some way, are the targets of various levels of oppression. Our friends (whose names, strangely enough with Syria how it is, shouldn\'t appear here) are Kurdish, and Syrian, but although officially we are in the Arab Republic of Syria, they are definitely not Arab. Though, as the neverending circle of friends continually grows we meet a great many of their friends, both Kurdish and Arab, and there are even Kurdish-Arab couples. We are invited to stay with the ringleader, our host, in his apartment, and decide why not. We spend the next few days exploring Syria, meeting countless friends and attending all the best kinds of parties (lots of music making and dancing, not so much alcohol or anything else which is haram in Islam. Aleppo is the most conservative city in Syria, and already conservative place. The majority of women here wear the full black hejab, with only their eyes visible, if that. We ask jokingly how they eat ice cream when they buy it in the bazaar. Apparently this miracle takes place some how. We also decide that they must, for the most part, be wearing some crazy lingerie underneath their black gowns - they are always staring and shopping in lingerie stores). And, I fall in love (the second time on this trip), but she is Syrian, rather devout Muslim (enough that shaking hands with a boy is a no-no), and has a boyfriend. Her name means "Innocence." Still, it doesn\'t stop her from sitting across the table from me, in her headscarf, and telling me how attractive she thinks I am. One of the more surreal conversations I\'ve had. I don\'t think it\'s going to work out. We join forces with a Mohammed (more or less, one out of every three guys in these parts is named Mohammed) from Sudan, and hit up the Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo, another gorgeous specimen. Things are quite different when you have a Syrian tour guide in tow. syr06 That night we also make it to a hamam (bathhouse), a specialty in the Middle East, and the first for me on this trip. Bryn promises me that it is going to be one of the most homoerotic experiences of my life. He is, more or less, right. It is a bunch of Syrian guys in their underwear acting like kids, cannonballing into the pool, sweating in the steam room, and continually soaping up and rinsing off. I get a soapy massage from our host, the two of us in our underwear, laying on a marble slab. Bryn goes for the official massage (an all boys club) and I am glad, I think, that I pass. The souq may even top that in Damascus - why not skin a camel and stick it on a hook attached to some ancient iron door in the bazaar? I\'ll spare the picture of the head. syr07 We are invited out to meet the family of our host, who live in Ein Al-Arab, a small village in Northeastern Syria. This village is on the Turkish border, and is most definitely Kurdish. There used to be a border crossing here, but it was closed by Turkey because members of the PKK (the Kurdish guerrilla/"terrorist" organization in Turkey) would cross here and get help from the villagers. I don\'t think many tourists come here - when we are leaving the bus station in Aleppo the police are not at all happy that an American and a Canadian are headed out to Ein Al-Arab. The minibus driver continually recieves calls during the trip, which we later learn are from the police, checking on our progress. The driver insists on delivering us right to the door of the house we are staying at - he has been ordered to, so that he can report back to the secret police and tell them where we are. After meeting our hosts parents, two amazing and very welcoming people, we go out for a walk to the Syria/Turkey border - a railroad track a few hundred meters away. syr08 The other side has been mined, by Turkey. A few weeks ago a kid from Ein Al-Arab playing in the field hit a landmine and lost a leg. There is no fence, and we step into Turkey with one foot, but our host refuses to cross the railroad tracks. What appear to be grain silos in the distance, flying Turkish flags, are undoubtedly military outposts. We see a sniper on one later, crossing into Turkey the next day. When we arrive back to the house we discover that the police have stopped by in our absence, and demanded to know what we are doing there, how we know the family, the host, where we met, etc. We agree on a story that is mostly truthful, in case they return. Although Bryn and I think this is quite nonsense, and want to go talk to the police (they avoid openly confronting us, the tourists) we are dissuaded by the family, who are already scared of possible repercussions of our visit. Not wanting to cause trouble, we defer, but still it is insisted that we stay with the family, despite the difficulties. The Syrian police think we are spies for the CIA. Or, more likely, pro-Kurdish supporters here somehow to aid the Kurdish cause or the PKK. They demand to be informed of when we leave and where we are going. We never quite spot them following us, though. To cross the border into Turkey we go further East, to a town that is predominantly Arab. Along the way their are armed guards (normal looking guys in plain clothes, in an unmarked pickup truck on the side of the road, holding AK-47s and with pistols stuck in the back of their jeans) who obviously are expecting an American and Canadian to come this way, and happily check our passports before waving us on (closer and closer to leaving Syria and becoming someone else\'s problem, we suspect). Near the border we are finally freed of any driver/police escort, and could have slipped anywhere, outside of this net of paranoia, but decide it is the appropriate time to be leaving. Turkey awaits.

Turkey :: The Beginning

on Apr. 20, 2009

As soon as we cross the border Bryn starts me on my Turkish lessons - he is at home here, and I\'m happy to have a tour guide. We make it to the Turkish side just as the border is closing. Unfortunately for me "the visa lady has already gone home for the day," so I hand my 15 euros to a guy on a motorbike who zooms away and returns twenty minutes later with a little postage sized stamp for my passport. We hike towards the dolmuş (minibus) station, and are quickly mobed by little kids smiling and screaming "hello papa" at us. We never, in the next two months, figure out what that means. The border guys, heading home, pick us up in their car, and we rock out to Rihanna blasting on the radio for the short ride. Already I am liking Turkey. The quick pronunciation guide: ş is \'sh\', ç is \'ch\', ı (i without a dot) is \'uh\', ğ is silent (ish), ö and ü are supposed to be different, somehow, and v is a bit soft, almost \'w\'. Our first stop in Turkey: Şanliurfa, where we find some budget accomodation sans incident and eat what is to be the first of many tavuk dürüm (chicken wrap from a kebab type spit), the most delicious thing ever created (after falalel, of course). The real name of the city is Urfa, the prefix makes it into "Glorious Urfa", an official name change demanded by the inhabitants after neighboring Antep turned into Gaziantep, or "Heroic Antep." The highlight here is the sacred carp (something to do with Abraham), which are constantly fed by tourists and are extremely fat. Killing one will apparently make you blind. turbeg01 We make a quick trip down to Harran for a few more ruins and some nice bee-hive houses (not pictured). The next day we book it up towards Mt. Nemrut, a trek which turns into a bit of an ordeal. We make it, shortly after sunset, to Kahta, near the base of the mountain, and are intercepted short of the bus station by a zealous pension owner who has obviously been informed of our impending arrival. We refuse (on the principal of it all), but when we get to the station the market owner across the street starts shouting at us until we walk over - he has a friend as well. This one owns a pension in Karadut, a little village near the summit, and we are quick to agree to the 5 lira minibus transport (it is actually just the normal public minibus, which no one will tell us about, and the actual price is definitely lower) and a free ride up. We get in just after midnight - the only guests, a fact much lamented by the owners, and crash. The thing to do with Mt. Nemrut, naturally, is to watch the sunrise from the top, so we set the alarm for 5am and set out, about 15km one way. A minor wrong turn and some fields and prickly thorn hedges later (bastardly effective things) we are only about halfway up by the time we see the sun, oh well. It is still a nice hike, and we have the top to ourselves - the attraction is a bunch of giant heads, and a huge artifical peak which is actually the tumulus for some long dead king. turbeg02 Having conquered Nemrut and returned all by 10am we head onwards to Diyarbakur, a trip which involves a curious 15 minute ferry ride across an obviously man made lake which has obliterated a portion of the road. Diyarbakur, the "bastion of Kurdish identity" in Turkey, has some cool basalt walls encircling the old city: turbeg03 Which, the locals claim to be the second longest in the world (after the Great Wall of China). We have our doubts. Diyarbakur also features rock-throwing kids, which are an amusing image up until the point where rocks are flying towards your head. We\'re tourists here. We meet a 19-year old guy who is quick to admit he wants to practice English, and after giving us a bit of a tour around the city invites us back to his place for dinner. Which is where I learn that Turkey, in the East at least, is nearly as conservative as Syria - when we arrive we wait for the mother and older sister to leave the living room, and don\'t see them for the entire time we are there - guys and girls eat separately, though perhaps only with guests around. We eat, and talk, only with the guys, and get a crash course on the Kurdish situation in Turkey. The father is a proponent of the \'federalist\' approach - he believes that Kurdistan can exist within the country of Turkey, if only they would be given more democratic representation. The son is adament that Kurdistan should be its own republic. Topics of militarism and the PKK are dangerous to talk about here, to say the least, and we avoid all but the briefest mention. The next morning we are off to Mardin, which definitely makes it onto the Top 10 most beautiful towns of the trip. It is perched on the side of a hill overlooking the Mesopotamian Plains, and the view is quite something: turbeg04 Unfortunately for us, Mardin is quite popular with Turkish tourists, and we have arrived on a weekend. That is to say, each and every hotel in the city (including ridiculously expensive ones we are ready to consider) are completely full. The one cheap option in town, Başak, proposes we sleep in reception. We counter with the roof. They agree. All in all, not a bad night on the roof - glad I have my sleeping bag. And, free is free. turbeg05 Bryn agrees to accompany me to Silopi, deep in the Southeast of Turkey, on the border with Iraq. We\'ve discussed the subject many a time over the past two weeks and I\'ve more or less made up my mind, though he is still on the fence. After a last minute internet session he admits that he has decided not to go - not the best news, I would prefer not to be alone, but the decision is undeniably a personal one, and I admit I won\'t attempt to persuade. turbeg06 The one and only picture I take in Silopi, inside our pithole of a hotel. Not the most restful night of sleep I\'ve ever had.

Iraq

on Apr. 25, 2009

I wake up in the morning to see Bryn off on the 7am bus to Van far out East. His parting gift to me is a giant switchblade knife he acquired in Biskek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, after being told it might come in handy there. "Just in case." The gift doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. The previous night we had been accosted by taxi drivers, and more to get them off my back other than any other reason I had vaguely agreed to go with one, who promised to meet me outside my hotel. Low and behold, when I wake up and make it downstairs he is there, waiting patiently. Things turn out for the best, though. The few accounts I've read have described all transport to/from/and inside Iraq as being crazy expensive, including a private taxi across the border, but I end up in a taxi service filled with Turks (or Iraqis) all making the crossing. Some quick photocopies, a chai break, and we're off, out of town and past the thousands of parked trucks waiting their turn at the border.

First stop: Turkish border control. I slide over my passport, he types something into the computer, apparently has some inner struggle, and hands it back to me. "Problem, visa, problem, computer," he says, and shrugs, "go to Qamishle, fix problem". Qamishle is several hundred kilometers to the West, on the Syrian border, and as I am pushed out of line by other impatient passport holders I swear under my breath – something with the visa when I came into Turkey must have gotten screwed up. The whole "visa lady has already gone home" screwed me over, and my trip into Iraq is over a bit sooner than even I expected. The other guys in the taxi are read to go, the driver looks at me questionably, and I ask about catching a taxi back to Silopi, ready to give up. Finally my taxi driver mentions a few key phrases which actually fall within my vocabulary, "fuloos, fish mushkila, …" i.e. money, no problem. And so I find myself being advised, by my taxi driver, to bribe the Turkish border official in order to let me out of the country. Very well – I inquire what the appropriate amount might be, he suggests 50 USD. I can't afford it (even if I really could) and suggest 20 USD instead. He shrugs, runs over to the passport booth, sticks his head inside and has a short conversation. He runs back, nods, I stick a twenty inside the front flap of my passport, he grabs it and tosses it to the official, and twenty seconds later I am back in the taxi, passport on the dash, happily granted leave from Turkey. The driver obviously informs the other passengers about the bribe, who tisk tisk, Arabic/Turkish fashion, in disapproval (at the border official, I'm hoping). I note only that this is the only time on the entire trip I have to bribe someone (excluding, perhaps, Transdniester, which has yet to come), and doesn't really speak well of Turkey's EU bid and the whole no corruption policy therein.

With that rather adrenaline inducing border crossing out of the way we are soon on the Ibraham al-Khalil bridge, and then at the Iraqi border, where we crowd inside a nice sitting room and are served with tea as our passports are processed. The proper responses to prompted questions in order to gain entry:

  • Purpose of visit: tourism (just tourism)
  • Profession: student (avoid anything fancy, i.e. journalist)
  • Amount of cash you are currently carrying: I lie, low, and get frowned at. I have the impression they want you to be carrying more than enough – Iraq is cut off from the international banking networks so although there are ATMs all over the place none of them work.
  • Why do you want to come to Iraq: just tourism (avoid elaborate story of the kindness of Kurdish people previously met in Syria, which got me a blank stare and a repeated question)
  • Do you know anyone / have any friends here: no.
  • Would you like to visit Kirkuk or Baghdad: definitely not.

In that case, "Welcome to Iraq". Or more correctly, "Iraqi Kurdistan", "The Autonomous Region of Kurdistan", or if you're feeling political, "Kurdistan." (Coincidentally, likely the reason I ran into problems at the Turkish border, since Turkey actively opposes the idea of a Turkish Kurdistan, and is probably not all that happy to see tourists headed towards the Iraqi version, the most successful out of any of the Kurdish populated countries). I am actually the first, from the taxi, done on this side of the border, with a giant stamp in the passport and a warm welcome to enjoy my stay. We spent the next hour waiting just beyond the bridge for a convey (which never appears and we eventually just leave without), and then negotiating with the local taxi cartel for a ride to my first destination, Dohuk. Which, is beautiful, and definitely not the image I had in my head of an Iraqi desert.

Near Dohuk, Iraq

When I first thought of coming, in Egypt, after realizing how close I was going to be in both Jordan and Syria, I imagined taking a taxi out to the border, seeing some giant "Welcome to Iraq" sign, a heavily militarized area manned by US troops, snapping a picture, perhaps crossing over for a few minutes, and that's about it. A few google searches later reveals two or three (publicized) trips, my inspiration, from June 2007, and discovered later, March 2009, just days before I go. There is also an impromptu website, Backpacking Iraqi Kurdistan, which provides my only source of city maps during the excursion. About two months later I was to meet someone with a new copy of the Lonely Planet Middle East (published: May, 2009), which now includes extensive information and maps on pretty much everywhere I went. I get the feeling that it is soon to be swarming with backpackers.

That said, no one was ever overly surprised that I was there. Curious glances in the street were at a normal, Eastern-Turkey level, and I never once felt the need to say I was from "Canada", as I had been prepared to do. Strange, then, that Americans can travel openly in this part of Iraq and actually feel welcome – the majority of the population is pro-American and appreciative of the US role in putting them where they are now. That is, free of Saddam and largely independent (with their own government and military), even with frequent and random power blackouts, which everyone just seems to ignore, and other such ridiculous difficulties in life. In Dohuk I meet Samir, and spend the next few hours polishing up my Kurdish. He knows virtually no English, is fluent in Arabic and Kurdish, and is at about the same level with Turkish as me. It is invigorating, to say the least, to successfully communicate with someone else in four languages (three of which I am terrible at) where any one would be a total failure. The most important phrase in Kurdish – "tu janna, min hashtetkem". Or, "you're beautiful, I love you." I love Dohuk, for a multitude of ridiculous reasons, including that they are happy to change my Syrian pounds (refused everywhere in Turkey) and they have falafel (nonexistent in Turkey).

The next day I find another taxi service outfit with rides to Arbil (or Erbil, or Hawler, in Kurdish), the capital, and jump in an aging BMW which is to be my taxi only to realize it is identical to my car back home. I am a bit suspicious as we start making circles through town, passing by the taxi guys over and over again, but eventually we pickup one more on one of our passes and head off, into the desert. Which it does become – desert, leaving the mountains behind. This stretch of the trip takes us near Mosul, and I get progressively more worried as the signs on the freeway announcing the distance to said city slowly decrease. When we are about 10km away we veer off the freeway, following a convoy of like minded folks, taking a little shortcut through the desert in order to avoid a city which no one, apparently, has any desire to go through, or near. We wind through the sand, while each car is blinded by the cloud kicked up by the car in front of it, and so veers off to the side to get a clear view. Eventually our group is a half dozen or so cars parallel to each other, driving like some sort of army formation, trying to see through the collective dust-storm that we manage to create. And then we encounter the other group, headed the other way. The scene reminds me of the game Destruction Derby, or whatever it's called, where cars mill about in a stadium trying to ram into each other until only one is left standing. Except here the objective is avoid any such collisions, and with 10m or so of visibility (less, once our driver attempts to use the cleaning fluid and creates a dusty smear all over the windshield) this is quite fun. Ok, we make it, and are soon enough back on the freeway and onwards to Arbil.

Which, to be honest, is my least favorite city, though I am not sure why. Other than the citadel in the middle (which, has potential), there really isn't that much to do. The curiosity is the money chargers, who are all old men sitting on the side of the road, the entirety of their business sitting as stacks of thick (several inches thick) 10,000 and 20,000 Iraqi dinar notes rubber banded together on cardboard boxes. "Must be a safe country." Wandering around that night (something I avoid my first night in Dohuk out of precaution) I run into an Iranian fellow, a tourist, who offers to share his hotel room with me and goes through great lengths to convince me that he can be trusted. Not to say that I don't, but I'm not sad that I've already paid for my room for the night.

The next morning (moving fast) I opt for the bus out to Sulimani (or Sulymaniyah), quite far out to the East. Rather, the only option is the bus, which I've read passes through the suburbs of Kirkuk en route – a situation that any Western tourist would be wise to avoid. I am not quite sure if we ever do, but if we do, they are definitely the suburb suburbs, and things never feel too out of hand. I see, for the first time, pillars of fire erupting from the ground (ignited gas pumps? not sure what they actually are, other than it reminds me of the movie Jarhead). For me the highlight of Sulimani is the Amna Surak, or "Red House," a former prison of Saddam Hussein where Kurdish fighters were tortured. Now converted into a museum, of sorts, which I manage to stumble on with the worst hand drawn map ever. It is closed when I arrive, but a young Kurdish soldier is happy to open it up for a tourist and give me a private tour. When we get to the room featuring a model of a guy, strung up by his hands, being tortured by electroshock, and featuring an audio recording of an actual torture session in the background, he lights up a cigarette and zones out as I stand there. Way out of my league.

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I am told that to leave Sulimani I have to get to some place called the "Baghdad Garage", which doesn't sound like quite what I am looking for, but in addition to destinations such as Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Najaf (buses which I could have easily hoped on without question, as easy as that) is good old Arbil.

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From Arbil back towards the border I seem to acquire a somewhat novice taxi driver, who doesn't quite know where the "through the desert" shortcut is to avoid Mosul, and as we get closer and closer everyone else in the car seems to be freaking out – the only word I can understand is Mosul, which doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. Eventually we wander around in the desert for awhile, stopping to ask for directions from random guys holding the ever present AK-47, do some circles, stop to buy some produce from a little shack, and are finally headed in the right direction. Shortly after which I manage to be involved in my first ever high speed car accident – no better place than Iraq? No one is hurt, though our factory new taxi is pretty messed up and the old guy's car (his fault!) fares likewise. Pulled over in the median we, at one point, acquire no less than a dozen spectator cars, everyone stops and jumps out to see what the problem is, lend their assistance in the shouting match which has been occurring non stop between the two drivers, or otherwise just stand around and smoke.

Some random, who speaks English, tells me to stick with him, he is headed to Zakho (the border) and I can join his ride, when it arrives. At some point I find myself the object of curiosity of a group of five or six guys, one of which, after my typical "California" response of origin, pulls up his shirt to reveal massive scars on his chest and arms. "From American bomb," he says, and suddenly I am in the situation Bryn was seriously afraid of – meeting that one guy whose dad, brother, or son was killed by some American bomb, and otherwise has the motivation to make your day unpleasant. To be honest, I'm not sure if he is serious, though in the end I suspect he is, but nothing develops of it – whatever I said in response must have been good enough.

An hour after the accident the police finally arrive, in the form of a pickup truck full of soldiers carrying automatic weapons. Perfect to resolve a dispute and figure out who was to blame. And, good timing for a sunset.

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Shortly thereafter my ride actually materializes, and something gets said to the driver (along the lines of, this tourist just got in an accident, his ride is free) which gets passed from driver to driver for the rest of the night, and gets me, via 3 taxis, for free, back to the border. I catch the same service taxi back over, no problems on either side, and after agreeing to smuggle a few cartons of cigarettes (well, the "limit", per person, so no harm done) for the driver, we also stop at the duty free store where I buy a few more cartons for the various guys using my passport. By 1am I am back in Silopi, and pretty happy about it, a little whirlwind tour over and done.

Turkey :: The East and Ankara

on Apr. 30, 2009

A 7am bus takes me towards Van, via eleven hours of winding mountain roads and two little kids sitting next to me throwing up the entire time while mom did likewise, and dad looked on. We hit Tatvan, on the Eastern end of the lake (the largest in Turkey), absolutely beautiful with snow-capped mountains surrounding it on every side. Van itself was nothing like what I expected – new, modern, full of young people bustling about at all hours of the night. I am still definitely in Kurdish territory though, I talk to a few locals who admit that "Turkish" people don't make a habit of coming here, they aren't particularly welcome. Besides the massive lakeside fortress I make it out to Akdamar Island, home to such and such a monastery, and a rather nice view.

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It makes me think of a "poor man's Galapagos" actually – I nearly step on a turtle while hiking around, and then stop and look around and see a whole invasion of turtles slowly making their way over the landscape. One side of the island is a sheer cliff, with birds zooming around so fast you can hear the air make way. The next day I make it down to Hoşap Castle, where I encounter my second contingent of rock throwing children. This time, however, they are atop a rather impressive set of castle walls, and have the distinct advantage, bombarding me from above. I decide to make my approach a bit later, by which time there is a group of middle-aged Kurdish guys playing tourists and the kids are on their best behavior towards me, all smiles. Infuriating. I minivan hop my way to Çavuştepe, a Uranian site, and then back to Van, where I am quick to move on the next day – halfway up to Kars, in the far Northeast of Turkey, is Doğubayazıt, sitting under the shadow of Turkey's tallest mountain, Mt. Ararat (5137m). A few hour hike into the hills lands you at the Ishak Paşa Palace:

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Up to Kars, which has been on my unavoidable list ever since I read the novel of the same title by Orpan Pamuk – one of the best books I have ever read, for sure. To be honest, Kars isn't quite the same as I had pictured after reading about nationalist vs religious vs communist struggles in the dead of winter some twenty years ago, but it is still a depressingly grey, Soviet-esque, town, exactly what I was looking for. Some caretaker at the Belediye (town hall) insists on posing for me.

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I team up with 1 Switzerland and 1 Belgium and we hire a taxi out to Ani, the medieval capital of Armenia, and only a few hundred meters from the current (-ly closed) Armenian border, a river with Russian military bases spaced out evenly on the other side.

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Thinking perhaps of a quick trip into Georgia, or else up to Trabzon on the Black Sea Coast, I get a message from Bryn telling me to get over to Ankara to partake in a massive music festival at the local university, Odtu (the Turkish equivalent of Harvard). A day stop over in Erzurum, where I meet, among other people, an old Turkish man who stops me on the street and confesses that he is addicted to buying Iranian carpets shortly before accusing me, as a proxy for capitalism, as being far inferior to socialism. We have a nice little chat, as I try not to miss my night bus to Ankara.

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The next few days I spend enjoying the amazing hospitality of several lovely Turkish ladies (and gentleman), staying in their apartments and heading out, each day, to the festival. Which takes place on campus, guarded by Turkish military (Odtu is apparently a hotbed for socialist troublemakers, reminds me a bit of Berkeley) – apparently on the first night, which I missed, there was a massive pro-Communist march, complete with hammer and sickle flags. A few different stages of music occupy a few thousand people during the day, where the usual procedure is to find a spot, buy some illicitly-smuggled-in beer from the numerous entrepreneurs taking advantage of the rather lax alcohol ban (not allowed at the entrance gates, but not enforced whatsoever inside), and settling down. At night, we move into the stadium for the main stage performance, before hitting bed (or not) before the sun rises, and then rinse and repeat. The last night a guy called Hayko Cepkin on the main stage, blasting out some rather hard and good Turkish metal, while crazy fans of the #1 football team in Turkey, Beşiktaş, pop a bunch of flares at the top of the stadium and unroll a huge flag.

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By the time the festival is over sightseeing in Ankara has taken a bit of a back seat, but we do make it out to the mausoleum of Atatürk, Anıtkabir, the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey, whose statue can be seen in the main square of pretty much every city, and who is, more or less, revered by all Turkish people. We read his Address to the Turkish Youth, a rather poignant and fitting episode at the time.

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Turkish youth! Your first duty is to project and preserve the Turkish independence and the Turkish Republic forever . This is the very foundation of your existence and your future. This foundation is your most precious treasure. In the future, too, there may be malovelent people at home and abroad, who wish to deprive you of this treasure.

If some day you are compelled to defend your independence and your republic, you must not tarry to weigh the possibilities and circumstances of the situation before taking up your duty. These possibilities and circumstances may turn out to be extremely unfavorable. The enemies conspiring against your independence and your Republic may have behind them a victory unprecedented in the annals of the world. By violence and ruse, all the fortresses of your beloved fatherland may be captured, all its shipyards occupied, all its armies dispersed and every part of the country invaved. And sadder and graver than all these circumstances, those who hold power within the country may be in error, misguided and may even be traitors. Furthermore, they may identify their personal interests with the political designs of the invaders. The country may be impoverished, ruined and exhausted.

You, the youth of Turkey's future, even in such circumstances, it is your duty to save the Turkish independence and Republic. The strength you need is in your noble blood within your veins

The next day Bryn and I say a rather sad goodbye to the Turks, and with promises to reunite soon, are back on the road together.

Turkey :: Black Sea Coast

on May. 11, 2009

Heading North from Ankara we stop for a night in Sanfranbolu – the highlight of which is "old houses," not typically up there on my list of must sees, but Bolu is a really cool Ottoman city built around a central hill and everything pretty much crumbling into nothingness. Perfect to wander around at sunset talking pictures, startling the local dogs, and getting told by old men to get out of their backyards (it was a path..)

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Next stop, Amasra, and my first view of the Black Sea. While wandering around in search of a cheap hotel we are accosted by a group of old ladies leaving the park who want us to rent an apartment. With plenty of Turkish in hand to make it happen, we are soon enough deposited in some apartment in a housing block and make an appointment for the next morning to "check out." Amasra is a sweet little town, with nothing to do other than wander around, gaze at the sea, meet the local English teacher, and eat pide.

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An early start the next day is our attempt to make it East, a few hundred kilometers, to Sinop, via a series of minibus hops. "Advisable to start early, else you may find yourself stuck in Inebolu, with no onward connections." Which is exactly what happens, as we wind along a gorgeous coastline at maybe 20km/hr, and so get to enjoy the hospitality of one of Inebolu's two hotels, where I suspect every backpacker that lands here has likewise missed the last bus (at 3:30, ridiculous).

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We make it to Sinop the next day, which is tourist central, with the town sprawled out on a bulging promentary with only a tenuous connection to the mainland. Some nice Roman (?) fortifications, falling into the sea. And yes, it is the sea, not the ocean as I often call it, and get shouted at each and every time.

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After a full day of wandering about Sinop we grab the last bus to Samsun, further Eastward, to await a midnight connection on to Trabzon – finally. We arrive in the morning, and bump into Dan who hops in our minibus from the bus station and joins the traveling crew. We make straight for the neighborhood known for prostitution – home of the cheapest hotels. We get shooed away from some, invited into others (which we steer clear of), and eventually land a room for just the right price. A nice little parade in Trabzon, Turkish banners flying, guys in uniform playing music, little school children singing, how nice.

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Among other adventures in Trabzon (including a failed attempt to locate any attractive natasha's, the local name for Russian prostitutes), we make it out to Sumela Monastery, a beautiful place in need of a bit more work.

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After a few days the three of us admit to the usual problem – no idea what we would do if we stayed longer. I debate with myself the Georgia question, and finally decide to skip it, instead getting on a bus headed back into central Turkey and go to catch the train to Cappadocia, and get, finally, back on "schedule." I get the bus times for the next morning, set my alarm, and due to a rather un-mysterious sequence of events (a tearfully drawn out breakfast full of goodbyes) decide that I have missed it by about 10 minutes. And so saying, I change my mind and tell the guys that I'm coming with them to Georgia.

Georgia

on May. 17, 2009

Jumping on the bus from Trabzon up the coast to Batumi in Georgia we make the unexpected acquaintance of two Canadian sisters, who ditch halfway to go hiking in the Kashkar Mountains (Turkey), but promise to join us in Georgia soon. I've been assured that US citizens, among others, no longer need visas to enter Georgia, as of this year – the book says otherwise, and I am a bit apprehensive when we just show up. We pile out of the bus with all the locals (who have stocked up with, among other goodies, kilos and kilos of bread just on the Turkish side) and get in the queue, where a drop dead gorgeous and very Soviet-esque 20-something girl scans passports and administers stamps. In a very no nonsense, don't fuck around kind of way. When we finally get to the front she asks if we've filled out the forms (definitely not) and are promptly told to get out of her line and go find said forms. Which are in the clutches of another girl about our age, who leaves us alone to fill out the forms (in Russian), which we decide are about the Swine Flu? We're not quite sure, and when we're done just leave them on the desk to get back in line. This time we answer yes to the forms question (live and learn, just say yes – a good motto for Georgia) and are prompty stamped through. Everyone else from the bus is long gone, having acquired who knows what modes of transport onward, though the bus is right behind us and we are happy to hop back aboard. We spend the next 45 minutes dodging cows in the road. Cows seems to rule the roads in Western Georgia – cars come to screeching halts as they calmly wander about, staring sullenly at the intrusive vechile blasting a horn from a meter away to no avail. The three of us agree that, already, we love Georgia.

In Batumi we avoid any backpacker type joints and find the cheapest hotel we can. Which is a bit damp, no other way to describe it, but definitely the right price. Off exploring – the main attraction of Batumi is perhaps the ferris wheel, which we hold off on for tomorrow, and the fountains coordinated to a whole concert of music. My favorite was definitely when Blur came on.

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Batumi is apparently party central in the coming months, though at the moment all the beach bars and clubs are frantically under construction, and things are a bit quiet. Our second day we dedicate to laying in the sun on the beach, drinking Russian beer and admiring the beautiful girls. A few hours into this strenous exercise the two Canadians randomly walk up – having been called crazy for trying to hike at this time of year they bailed the next day straight to Batumi. The five of us make a ferris wheel date, which for some tragic reason isn't running this day, the saddest moment ever. We make up for it by going for khinkali (dumplings) for dinner, the size of which we drastically underestimate and order enough food for about ten people. With stomachs about to explode we are interrupted by a merry old chap who arrives to our little zone (apparently dining out in Georgia is quite a private affair, if you don't get an individual room for your party you get a little area cordoned off with curtains) with a bottle of champagne and toasts us, Georgian style. That is, with a great many things said, and then the immediate consumption of all the alcohol in your glass. A bottle of champagne down, we are all invited downstairs to join their party (a birthday celebration), where all the younger relatives are dancing about while the whole family claps, drinks (well, the boys), and generally has a merry time. Dan about passes out from sunstroke/sunburn, while the rest of us consume an amazing amount of homemade [white] Georgia wine and make a pathetic attempt to match the amazing dancing of the kids. One of the guys, maybe a little younger than us, is in the national folk dancing troupe – amazing stuff.

A late night leads to an early start, the next day, for Gori, in the middle of Georgia and most renowned for being the birthplace of Stalin. Featuring, among other things, a giant statue of Stalin in the main square, the Stalin museum (all in Russian, be forewarned), and the "original" house that Stalin was born in, preserved in situ.

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Our accomodation in Gori is our first experience with a Georgian homestay. It is listed in the book at 1 euro/night (prices have gone up slightly), and it takes us accosting a local, who proceeds to walk with us across town, to find the place. He knocks at the door, down the dusty side street of a dirty side street, neither with a name, and this old lady appears, speaking no English, seemingly unaware what three backpackers may be doing at her door. At this point, our guide has the most doubtful expression on his face, as in, you guys should get out of here, and at this point I am thinking the same thing. But a few seconds later we are waved inside the little family compound – one of the strangest places I've managed to spend a few nights.

In Gori we meet up with the first of two Georgia friends that Bryn met in Cairo – Data. We spend the next few days hanging out with all his friends in Gori, enjoying their amazing hospitality. A phenomenon we first discovered in Syria, it seems that whenever someone becomes your host all their other duties in the world cease to exist, something I will have to try and emulate back in the States. After much too long, or much too short, in Gori, we make our way to the capital, Tbilisi, where a general sense of angst has been ongoing for quite some time now (my new found source for all kinds of crazy news from this area). Protestors, living in little plywood and plastic huts labeled as "cells", have completely blocked off the main street downtown which runs in front of parliament.

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They are demanding the resignation of the president, for, among other things, his mistreatment of the Russian invasion, and suspicions over a tank battalion mutiny (how sweet does that sound) which happened just a few days before we arrived. With this in mind, we expected Tbilisi to be a rather lively place, but things were, sadly, rather under control, at least on the surface.

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We are told that there are nightly police raids through the protester's camp to scare people, and that big plans are afoot for independence day, only a few days ahead. At the insistence of our Georgian hosts we make a trip South to the Davit Gareja Monastery, a beautiful place in an "arid lunar landscape" sitting on the border with Azerbaijan, a country looking all the more tempting. A journey which involves chartering ourselves a private taxi for an hour ride from the closest bus stop for a negotiated price which our driver agrees to all too quickly – even if he does sit around waiting us for hours.

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We meet up with Bryn's second friend from Cairo – Tato (there is a bit of a name repetition issue in Georgia..), who is (a) somewhat a celebrity in Georgia, having been a star on the first ever Georgian reality show, something akin to Big Brother, and (b) the manager of the biggest night club in Tbilisi, which is conveniently having a bit of a shindig which we get some invites to, complete with a VIP table upstairs. Not too shabby at all. A night which doesn't end until the sun is peeking back over the horizon. Our sightseeing the next day (feeling a bit bad that we haven't actually seen that much of the city) includes what is apparently baptism day at the local cathedral. And a stunning view after a rain storm.

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Among other curiosities, such as the availability of kachapuri (cheese or meat, flaky pastries) for breakfast, and nothing else, are the ubiquitous seedy casinos everywhere.

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My first taste of the ex-USSR is quite satisfying. It convinces me that girls from this part of the world are exceedingly beautiful, things are exceedingly cheap, and that I definitely need to learn Russian.

Turkey :: Central Anatolia

on May. 26, 2009

I ditch the duo who are headed up into the mountains (next time!) and catch a bus back across the border in to Turkey. My old haunt in Kars happily provides accommodation for the night while I wait for the 8am the next day. How could I come to Turkey and not ride on the famed (or, rather, ill-famed) train? In just shy of 30 hours it deposits me in Kayseri, only a short hop from my return to tourist central – Cappadocia (Kapadokya). The landscape is worth it.

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I shack up in a rooftop dorm room in Göreme for a few days to check out the area. The surrounding countryside is perfect for hiking, crisscrossed with valleys, crazy rock formations, ancient rock cities and monasteries, and a spread of blooming flowers courtesy of spring. It all feels a bit like Dahab though, backpacker central, full of small cafes and bars, plenty of room for the ambiguous lounging.

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The Göreme Open Air Museum is a small area full of rock-cut churches and houses, "fairy chimneys," and the occasional cave monastery. I spend all my time hiking around a maze of interconnected valleys with such delightful names as Rock Valley, Pigeon Valley, Baglidere Valley, Zemi Valley, and Rose Valley.

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Someone told me about a hike through Ihlara valley to the south and I manage to make it down via Aksaray. I drop my bags at a little pension in Ihlara, manage to catch the last bus up to Selime at the other end of the valley, and hike back the 14km before sunset. What an awesome hike, with a curious little segment in the middle where all the tour buses come for the "day trip" hikes. The vast majority of it I see more locals than hikers though, as the trail follows a river alongside farmland and orchards. The next day I get an early start out towards Konya, renowned for its conservatism and the heart of Sufism, ala Mevlana, Mystics, and the Whirling Dervishes. I never knew that the reason they twirled was because they believe the dizzying sensation itself brings them closer to something / is a sort of religious experience. A very cool ceremony, with mostly middle aged men, though also younger boys in training and a duo of elders in the lead.

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Although I find myself perpetually behind schedule I can't help but make yet one more stop before reaching the coast – Lake Egirdir. Jutting out into the blue lake is the majority of town sits on a awkward little promontory. Definitely a place to come and relax – my hostel has a unobstructed balcony looking straight towards sunset and a staircase straight down to the beach.

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Turkey :: The Coast & The West

on June. 1, 2009

From Egirdir I make my way to Antalya, jumping off point for the Turkish coast. Headed to the old center I hop off our big bus with a few locals and pile into a little minitaxi provided by the bus company to get us into town. The driver winds through narrow streets and backyard orchards on a route which I doubt is the most direct. We pull up to some house where he starts honking madly – a package pickup in the middle of his run. To satiate us he jumps out and picks a few handfuls of orange-esque fruits from a tree and hands them around to all his passengers. Can't complain. Antalya itself is not too impressive – a return to tourist central, especially Russian. I stay only a day before heading down the coast to Olympos, of backpacker fame. Olympos sounds more like a resting place for the gods, and there are some impressive Roman ruins, as well as the eternal flames at Chimera. But the main draw is the string of hostels and a stretch of gorgeous beach. I forgo the party destinations and end up at Saban Pension, where the mom cooks us a feast every night – some of the best food of this entire trip. My days are spent lying in the hammocks, lounging on pillows in the orchards, reading, sunbathing, and swimming in the ocean. Including a sunrise swim which I am surprised myself by making it to. For the next two weeks I manage to swim in the ocean every day. I would love to live on the coast. When it is finally time to say goodbye I am on to Kas, and wish I would have stayed a bit more in Olympos. I am city hoping, though why I am not quite sure. Quickly on to Patara, site of some amazing ruins of Lycia, and also Turkey's only (?) real sand beach, 13km long of pure beauty. I spent a few days. I don't accomplish much. On to Fethiye, renowned for its over density of British vacationers. A few fun nights, one with a 200 euro bar tab (between three of us, and totally not my fault), and a gorgeous view from the rooftop dorm room.

Next to Marmaris, full of Ukranian and Russian tourists. The guys work on their suntan the "Russian way," standing, speedos bunched up as small as possible, rotating slowly. After someone points it out to me I can't help but notice everyone. Also, a fair percentage of ladies no longer feeling the need for their tops. I think I am as shocked as any of the locals, coming from the east. Marmaris is a big city without much charm, but I catch a little bus out to Datca on the peninsula, where I wouldn't have minded staying a few more days. The ferry takes me across to Bodrum, party central, home to Halikarnas, the "loudest disco on the Med." On the quieter side of the harbor, a sponge vendor.

And the view from the Bodrum Castle, built during the Crusades:

From Bodrum I head inland, forgoing Pamukkale (not worth it I've been repeatedly told), and landing at the ancient Roman city of Ephesus (Efes). There are a handful of hostels in town and all seem pretty fun. The ruins themselves are amazing, the main marble boulevard leading up to the library, and the immense theater. Spoiled only slightly by the hordes of European tourists in bright pastel tank tops crowding after tour guides. Still, the place clears out near sunset, and it is easy to see how this city was second only to Rome.

Not quite content to hit the west in one step, I make a midway stop at Bergama. The ancient city of Pergamon lords over, and the Sanctuary of Asclepius (awesome underground tunnel) is nearby, as is the massive "Red Basilica." The redeeming feature of the guesthouse I stay at is the library, which provides me with a hardcover Isaac Asimov anthology which I carry with me until the end of the trip. The last stop I want to make is Troy, even though I've heard all the fuss about the ruins, not impressive, not well excavated, potentially not even Troy etc. It is nearly to Canakkale, my stop for the night, but if I have to go and then make the small trip back I'll never make it in time. Instead, I take a tip and ask the bus driver to let me off at Truya, which he happily does, big backpack and all, whereupon I discover the 5km walk from the highway to the site. Which, an hour later in the hot sun, was just as rough as I had expected it to be. The guards take pity on me at the site, I stash my backpack and look around. A giant replica of the wooden horse, tacky. The best pictures I take are of an awning covering the ruins and of a friendly cat. Still, with a little imagination. I join a bunch of workers from a nearby restaurant who all head back into town in a little shuttle, their work done for the day.

My first view of the Dardanelles. A waterway whose importance has been impressed upon me by Orpan Pamuk. One night only – I'm not here for Gallipoli, the main attraction, as are all the aussies and kiwis that fill the hostels. Tomorrow morning, bright and early, to Istanbul.

Turkey :: Istanbul

on June. 15, 2009

Istanbul (previously Byzantium and Constantinople, now fifth largest city in the world) is a whirlwind of sight and sound that I immerse myself in for little more than a week, though I could have stayed so much longer. A series of snapshots. I take lodging in the heart of Sultanahmet, where the majority of the hostels are, the classical tourist sights, and everything that is wrong with Istanbul. But also some of the most beautiful parts. At some point I brave the crowds at the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya), which looks a bit squat and ugly from the outside but is unbelievable from within. On the central altar (?) a cat basking in the warmth of a lamp has everyone in distressed excitement.

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Between the spice bazaar and the Yeni Cami ("New Mosque") a row of men washing their feet, hands, faces outside.

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The inside of the Yeni Cami. The boy in the gown and specter is one of several we see in the city, undergoing part of their passage to manhood – circumcision.

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The inside of the Blue Mosque is covered in exquisite blue tiles. The ceiling:

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One of the specialties of tourist-Istanbul is freshly caught fish, perhaps from fisherman perched along all the bridges of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, freshly fried and stuffed inside a bun of bread with some onions. "Balik Ekmek" – "fish bread." Is delicious. For a slightly more upscale dining experience, the underside of the Galata Bridge is lined with seafood restaurants just over the water.

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The two palaces in Istanbul I am able to see: Topkapı and Dolmabahçe. Topkapı is a sprawling affair, sweeping vistas over the water and unbelievable architecture and decorations.

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Inside Dolmabahçe, though, is the most beautiful building I have ever seen. No photography allowed, though Wikipedia has a few shots. Just to whet the appetite for something slightly off the tourist trail:

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first President of the Republic of Turkey, used the palace as a presidential residence during the summers and enacted some of his most important works here. Atatürk spent the last days of his medical treatment in this palace, where he died on November 10, 1938. Contains the world's largest Bohemian crystal chandelier, a gift from Queen Victoria. The palace has an area of 45,000 m2 (11.2 acres), and contains 285 rooms, 46 halls, 6 baths (hamam) and 68 toilets. The famous Crystal Staircase has the shape of a double horseshoe and is built of Baccarat crystal, brass and mahogany. The palace includes a large number of Hereke palace carpets made by the Hereke Imperial Factory. Also featured are 150-year-old bearskin rugs originally presented to the Sultan as a gift by the Tsar of Russia.

Also, walks up through Beyoğlu and Beşiktaş, kumpir (the most delicious thing in the world, like some sort of amazing baked potato) in Ortaköy, a meyhane and general merryment in Taksim, nargile (shisha) pipes in Tophane, the ferry over to Kadıköy and a tea at a relaxing çay bahcesi (tea house), the Grand Bazaar, the Basilica Cistern. Abandoned tankers lopsided on the rocks in Üsküdar. I love the names of Istanbul's neighborhoods. One place I need not even promise to return to. But at the end, the train station beckons, and an overnight train with a cabin shared by a curious old man sees me across the border into Bulgaria – back, to Europe.


Continue on to part four.