Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Incredible Istanbul (22nd - 26th Nov 07)

Istanbul is on the geographic border between the Europe and Asian continents, seperated by the Bosphorous river. So before arriving in Istanbul we expcted the city to have more of an European feel that the rest of Turkey.

Istanbul was more prosperous and sophisticated than the rest of Turkey yet it still maintained its distinct Turkey vibe. And we absolutely loved the city.

Here we met up with a friend of Nats, Scott, for the weekend. He flew out from London to catch up with us. It was great to see a familiar face and to explore the city with him.

Scotty and Nick enjoying Pomegranite juice with a local lady

There are so many sights to Istanbul. Agia Sofia was a massive church built around 500AD that was later converted into a mosque. Other than the grand status of the building, the conversion into a Mosque made it even more interesting as mosaics of Jesus and Mary were painted over with Muslim design. Only some of these layers of the paint have been removed to show the Christian aspects underneath, but it still has a very mosque-like feel.

Other sights of interest were the Blue Mosque and the Toplaki palace.

The Blue Mosque

And no visit to the city isnt complete with a few hours at the Grand Bazaar (market place), boat trips up the river, lots of Turkish food and of course Baklava.

Mouth-watering Baklava on sale all over Istanbul

Then of course there is the most hilarious aspect of the weekend. The hostel we were staying at hired a belly-dancer for a show. The women could definately get those hips of hers moving. But then to keep the audience entertained she got people out of the audience to have a go dancing with her. Scott was one of her first victims, and when trying to give the women a tip, she quickly moved her body away teasing poor Scott. It took Scott quite a few attempts to get his note of Lira into part of her costume.

Scotty with the Belly-dancer

(this photo is for you Jane to see what your lovely brother got up to)

Then later it came to Nicks turn. He got his hips giggling with the women, and after he sat down the women came over with a look of her face 'wheres my tip?'. Nick didnt have a single cent on him as his bag was downstairs, so Scott came to the rescue. But the smallest note that Scott had was a 20 euro note (about $40nzd). When that came out, the women had the 'give me' look on her face, so reluctantly the money went over. She did damn well out of Scott in the audience, but it was well worth the very entertaining evening.

So overall it was a fantastic weekend in a great city with great company. From Istanbyl we flew to India to spend the next 5 weeks.

Central Turkey (15th - 21st Nov 07)

On our way from Izmir to Ankara, the capital of Turkey, we had the pleasure of catching a overnight train. Turkey is currently revamping its train network, putting new lines in and buying new trains. Our near new sleeper carriage was one of the best we have had on this trip. The journey itself was very scenic as we moved away from the coast up on to the central anatlian plateau. The landscape of rolling grassy steppes reminded us of mongolia.

We only spent a brief but busy day in Ankara where we visited the Anatolian Civilisations Museum, which is a fantastic museum housed in an old Caravanserai displaying objects from Anatolias numerous historic groups. It is amazing to read about how many different people have at one time or another ruled in modern day turkey. The greeks, persians, alexander the great, romans, ottomans, and the anzacs tried....

After Ankara our next stop was Cappadoccia, a region right in the heart of turkey. The draw here is the amazing landscape and unbelievable rock formations (that got nick going....). There are huge rock chimneys of soft volcanic rock that have been preserved by a hard rock cap that stops erosion while the surrounding rock was worn down. But on top of that the early christians (2000years ago) in turkey carved extensive houses and churches into the rock chimneys. In the churches are well preserved frescoes that decorate the walls. We hired a scooter one day to see some distant sights such as the underground cities that were built to hide in during attacks. These cities are often 10 levels deep and have granaries and pits for storing important things like wine. They also have huge rolling stones used to block doorways to trap intruders.

Rock Chimneys

Frescoes in the Cave Churches

We spent another couple of days doing some hikes around some of the valleys. We were accomanied by spotty the guide dog who belonged to the owner of our guesthouse. Spotty lead us through all the poorly marked paths, took us to a few water wells, found some old biscuits then lead us home after a few hours walking. Fantastic...

We then headed south to Konya, a strongly religious city which has some of the best mosques in Turkey. We enjoyed the suprisingly laid back and young people here and got to see some beautiful old mosques, which were located about everywhere we looked. Come prayer time the muzzin rang throughout the town from every direction.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The West Coast of Turkey (9th - 15th Nov 07)

All the reading we did prior to arriving in Turkey got both of us very excited. We heard such fantastic things about the people, the food and the culture. And also it does not use the Euro, which makes everything far more attainable.

So we had high expectations but so far it has lived up to every one.

We arrived in a town called Çesme on the Western Agean coast. In summer it is apparently quite touristy but we were visiting in the off-season and so it had a nice feel to it. We found a fantastic pension that was about half the price we were paying 10km across the sea in Greece. (A pension is the name given to a type of guesthouse that is more family run with only a few rooms).

The owners were fantastic and served us Chai (tea) that would be the first of many to come. In Turkey, tea is an important part of the day. You have a tea many times during the day, and strangers welcome you over to have a tea with them. It is great way to interact with locals, despite big language barriers.

From Çesme we headed to the nearby large city of Izmir. Four million people live in this city, but it doesnt seem that large in comparison to Ankara or Istanbul. Various Turkish people and tourists told us not to bother with the big cities like Izmir and Ankara, but some of our favourite parts of travelling is not sights as such, but just wandering around watching how local people live and their way of life. That is something that it at its best in big cities where you are catching public transport with only locals (not tourists) and eating at cheap fantastic restaurants where the prices and quality is great as it is geared towards the local market.

Later we headed down to Selcuk, which was a nice little town and a good base to explore the nearby archaelogical site of Ephasus. This was an amazing ancient village from the Roman Empire, complete with an ampitheatre, baths and libaries to name a few.

The library at Ephasus

We also headed to Kusadasi for one day, but this was a pretty horrible tourist town with touts everywhere, pushing you into their shops. In Turkey, the carpet shop is the tourist trap, where they try and get you into their shop to see how they weave their carpets and then sell you one at twice the price for what it is worth. And of course they offer all sorts of services like delivering it back to NZ for us. Not our sort of place, where they pressure you to purchase, so on hearing the word carpet mentioned we quickly move along.

A Caravanseri in Kusadasi

So we caught the train back to Izmir to spend a bit more time there. The trains in Turkey are fantastic but unfortunately there are only a few lines, so to get across to Ankara we had to head back to Izmir. But while we were there this time we tried out a Turkish bath. Here you spend time in a big swimming pool like thing and a sauna. And then you have someone exfoliate you all over then give you a massage. Normally men and women are seperated, but the one we went to was only male masseurs. I didnt totally enjoy my male massuer experience, as he was a bit inappropriate, and Nick came away with grazes because they exfoliated him so hard, but it was a interesting thing to do none-the-less. Maybe we will head to another one in Istanbul that is more professional.

And of course the food has been fatastic in Turkey. Our meat-intake has quadrupled but there is great variety and it is all very reasonably priced.

A common sight in Turkey

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Athens & the Greek Island Chios (3rd - 9th Nov 2007)

We coincidentally timed our visit to Athens when the Athens marathon was being held. This is a particularly interesting Marathon race because it is the original route starting in a place called Marathon and finishing in the Olympic stadium. It was hard on Nick meeting all the competitors at our backpackers and on the street pumped about the race, as completing a marathon is one of his ambitions. But the timing wasn't right for him to enter in the Athens one, as our cycle touring meant that he could not run as seriously as needed to compete. So the goal is the Auckland one later next year.

We went down to the Olympic stadium to watch the finish. It had an amazing atmosphere and you could imagine all the sports events held here over hıstory. Both a mens and womens race record was set this year, so it was also amazing watching them come in.

Olympic Stadium in Athens

The Acropolis was also a must-see of Athens. We unfortunately timed our visit with hundreds of tour groups, so we didn't linger longer than necessary and probably didn't appreciate its historical significance as much as we should have. In terms of other things to see in Athens, it doesn't nearly compete to those in Rome. So after wandering the streets we ended up spending a bit of time meeting new people at our social hostel.

Part of the Acropolis

From Athens we caught an overnight ferry to an island called Chios. İt is only 15km from the border with Turkey, and is described as an off-the-beaten track kind of island. This suited us just fine as it was a convenient jumping point for Turkey and we could explore a Greek island without the package tourists. One town in particular had interesting geometric designs on many of the houses.

Geometric designs in the village Pyrgi on Chios Island

Chios was a great way to spend our last few days in Greece, roaming around the old streets and chilling out in our fantastic guesthouse in a restored neo-classical building.

Then a short hop across the sea to our first destination in Turkey - Çesme. From here we have just over two weeks to explore such a vast country (regrettably it seems we didn't allocate enough time).

Monday, November 5, 2007

Greece: Olympia, the Mani, Ancient Corinth & Nafplio (24th Oct - 3rd Nov 07)

After a 20 hour ferry from Italy, we finally arrived at the port of Patras in Greece, in the SW corner of the country. From here we were in a great position to explore some ancient sites and nature. Our first spot was Olympia, where the ancient Olympic Games were held. The archaelogical site here was fantastic, with an equally good museum so you could imagine how it was under the ancient Greek period.

Where they light the Olympic flame - in the Ancient & Modern Games

Nick trying out the track at Olympia

Then off further down the Peloponesse to a town called Kardamyli (south of Kalamata where we tasted a few olives on route). We did some great walks here, one through a fantastic gorge. This part of Greece has amazing scenery, with small roads, so it was a bit of a stab for us to be sitting on a bus, rather than riding the fantastic roads. But we had to send home the bikes, so we now have to live with the decision.

Walking the Vorges Gorge in Kardamyli

On the Monday morning when catching our bus back, we were slightly moaning at it being over an hour late to arrive. Then at the train station, our train was an hour late too. It took us two days to realise that daylight savings finished in Greece, and we were going by the wrong time - stupid tourists we were.

Then off to more archaelogical sites at Ancient Corinth, and then to wander round a pituresque Greek town of Naplio. While we werent too interested in Classical studies in the past, being here and seeing the real deal is very impressive. So now even a piece of pottery at a musuem is fascinating and it makes us want to learn more about Greek history.

It has taken a bit of adjustment to backpacking again but Greece has been a great country so far and from here we go to Athens and then to a Greek Island of Chios.