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Finally in Istanbul

Posted: 2006-12-14 15:11:42, Categories: Travel, Turkey, Cycling, 444 words (permalink)

The wedding band in Poyrali practising by playing to us. The last few hundred kilometers took time, but now I've finally arrived in Istanbul. Actually it happened already four days ago, but I didn't rush to write in the blog right away.

The first couple of days in the city were spent mostly taking care of practical things such as washing clothes, reading email and checking out visa requirements and transportation options to next countries. I'm planning to go to India, erte is heading towards Northern Africa and Emile will return to Belgium, spending some time in warmer regions of Turkey or Greece first, however.

Getting a visa to India turned out to be a bit more complicated than expected. It took several phone calls and some 90 minutes of queueing to find out what is actually required, but now I'm a bit wiser. There is an Indian consulate in Istanbul which accepts visa applications, but as an attachment they require a letter from Finnish consulate which certifies that my passport is valid and I'm the holder of it. Kind of silly because such a letter would be far easier to fake than the actual passport, but that's what they want. They even showed me an example of a such letter for a French person who had been granted a visa through the same consulate. The Finnish honorary consulate in Istanbul is not authorized to write such a letter and it apparently cannot be handled by fax either, so I need to travel to the embassy in Ankara about 450 km away to get that precious piece of paper.

When traveling to Ankara I'm also planning to visit Cappadocia, an area of unusual natural landscapes and underground cities about 200 km south-east from the capital. I'm naturally also planning to see a bit more of Istanbul, so I will still have something to write before leaving Turkey.

When I started my tour and people were asking how far I'm going to ride my bike, I said I'll go first to Istanbul and reconsider there. Now I'm quite confident that I want to continue, although the countries will become less bike-friendly and I will be using other ways of transportation more than up to now. The total distance from Helsinki along my (certainly not the shortest) route was 6349 km, with an additional 170 km of cycling in Moldova using Serj's bike. Istanbul is my last stop in Europe, Asia begins on the other side of Bosphorus which divides the city in half. I've also already been on the road for half a year now (well, tomorrow to be exact), so it nicely marks the end of the first half of my trip. The second half will be in Asia.

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Please come to have some tea

Posted: 2006-12-05 12:57:15, Categories: Travel, Bulgaria, Turkey, Cycling, 897 words (permalink)

The wedding band in Poyrali practising by playing to us. Our last days in Bulgaria were spent traveling slowly along the Black Sea coast until the town of Tzarevo, then taking mostly very small roads until Malko Tarnovo. Erte, the Lithuanian guy, had a small accident on the way which delayed us for a couple of days, but he's okay now. We also met a friendly Frenchman making money with real estate and building his dream house in Sozopol, chatted with an elderly painter in Tzarevo and took photos of horses walking freely on the meadows by the Veleka river. After Malko Tarnovo we crossed the border to Turkey.

This time it was immediately obvious that we had arrived to a different country. Every village would have at least one mosque, from where the imam would raise the call for prayer five times per day. Coffee shops and restaurants were full of men, usually drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. Later we would find out that in bigger towns it was not uncommon to order a beer, too. But even there, you wouldn't see a woman enter a bar, even with her husband. In Istanbul that's possible and even common, we've been told, but we're not there yet.

Our first stop in Turkey was Dereköy, the first village after the border. It was raining when we arrived, and a local restaurant owner invited us to warm up in his cafeteria. After that the son of the sheriff said he could offer us a safe place to camp so we moved to another cafe to have tea with the locals and to wait for the sheriff. Eventually he never arrived but our hosts would not leave us in trouble: we laid our sleeping bags on the floor of the town planning office.

Since then we have been invited for a tea numerous times. Everybody wants to exchange a few words with the strange traveling cyclists, although it's often difficult due to the language barrier. Kids are the best: everyone can ask in good English at least "What's your name" and "Where do you come from". Some of them may also beg for money after that, but especially in villages they surround us simply for pure curiosity. They are also eager to pose for photos whenever they see us carrying cameras. The tea, by the way, is black tea and usually fairly strong, served always in the same kind of small glasses, with two cubes of sugar placed next to the glass.

When we happen to come across adults who speak English or German, they'll certainly ask what we think about Turkish people and whether we believe Turkey will be accepted to join the European Union. People at least in this part of the country are generally very positive towards EU and want to communicate and spend time with us. In Kirklareli a wealthy shop owner took the whole evening and good part of the following day to walk and drive us around in his city. Whatever we wanted to do he would show us the best in town: the best restaurant for lunch, the best shop for sweets, the best cheese and warm milk for breakfast, the best vegetables for the road, all of which were sold by his friends of course. However, the purpose of the tour was not to squeeze out our last liras — instead he went on to offer us a long night of eating and drinking (including a bit of scary drunken driving) out of his own pocket.

Another topic which will quickly turn up in any longer discussion is religion. People are very eager to point out that all muslims are not terrorists and that both christians and muslims believe in the same God, although in different ways. They also want to know what is our religion. A special addition has been the recent visit of the Pope. Turkey itself is interesting as being a muslim country but probably the most liberal and westernized of them, especially the European part of it. Alcohol is readily available in shops, women don't cover their faces when walking outside, and even official school uniforms of young girls can feature short skirts which end above the knees.

In the small village of Poyrali we were invited to join a Turkish wedding. First we were treated to a meal in one of the local restaurants and in the evening we joined the wedding party with a few hundred other guests. It consisted mainly of dancing to traditional music which was played using drums and kind of flutes. In the picture you can see the wedding band practising by playing for us in the afternoon. Surprisingly there were no food or drinks available at the party place, except for raki (a strong alcohol) and cheese which were cheerily offered to us just before the entrance. We were told that weddings normally continue until morning hours, but this time it ended already before ten in the evening. That was probably due to the cold weather as the whole party was held outdoors.

Yesterday we arrived to the Black Sea coast again, I'm posting this in the fishing village of Kiyiköy. We're only about 150 km away from Istanbul but at our current speed of travel arriving there will take nearly a week — accepting all those invitations for tea takes time. :) But we're enjoying it, so there's no need to hurry.

Wine with friends in Moldova

Posted: 2006-10-17 20:47:02, Categories: Travel, Moldova, Cycling, 907 words (permalink)

Eating mamaliga with friends in
Chisinau My trip to Moldova was great. It was originally planned to last for one week but became 12 days of having good time with friends, seeing some extraordinary places and tasting local delicacies, naturally including several different variants of world renowned Moldovan wine.

Getting to Chisinau (the capital of Moldova) from Iasi (in Romania) was a bit chaotic. I had checked at the bus station that there should be a bus at 14:00. However, at the information desk people instructed me to go 1 km away to a parking lot used by minibuses. The minibus driver wouldn't take me because I didn't have a visa and pointed that I should go with another man in a normal car. They said that the nearest border crossing used by the minibus wouldn't have a consulate, although I had checked from the web that there should be one. It all sounded exactly like an arrangement to rip off stupid tourists, but at least I got a fairly reasonable price quote of 35 lei (10 euros) which I wrote on a piece of paper.

In roughly an hour the man got the car full of other passengers (which were all Moldovans) and started the car. After that everything went fine. At the border crossing a young officer kindly instructed me to write "National day of wine" as the purpose of my visit, and I got a visa for 19 days free of charge immediately on the spot. Questions about a return ticket (which I didn't have), the amount of currency I had or other things mentioned in the visa formalities weren't asked. In Chisinau the driver offered to take me to any location I wanted and the price was the one agreed at the time of departure. My first evening in Moldova ended with a delicious meal with friends. The food was mamaliga, a corn based traditional dish in Romania and Moldova, served with meat, fresh cheese, smetana, garlic and wine.

The wine festival was a two-day event where all the major wine producers would come to city center to present their products. There was also a stage with traditional music and dance performances. The festival was mostly to celebrate new wine which some stands offered for free, others charging nominal amounts such as one Moldovan lei (about 0.07 euros) per cup. Older wines were available in bottles but I was a bit surprised that there wasn't any organized tasting of them. Perhaps it took place in some of the restricted areas which seemed to welcome mostly invited guests dressed in suits. Well, we shopped a variety of snacks from the long array of food stands and shared a bottle of 1994 Cabernet (about 2.5 euros) for lunch.

The most special place during my visit in Moldova was Orheiul Vechi. It's an almost 1000 year old cave monastery about 60 km north from Chisinau. The monastery itself was interesting but the real treat was the location. The monastery cave was situated near the top of a hill surrounded from three directions by a deep valley. A river flowed slowly in the bottom of the valley. The views from the monastery hill as well as from the cliffs on the other sides of the valley were fantastic. Surrounding villages were some of the pretties I've seen on the whole trip, with colourful houses, gardens and wineyards.

I went to Orheiul Vechi together with Erte, a Lithuanian guy who had come to Moldova by bicycle through Belarus and Ukraine. I had left mine in Bacau but borrowed a bike from one of my friends in Chisinau. We spent the first night in Erte's tent camping by the river, but on the second day asked the monk in the cave church if we could stay in the monastery. He welcomed us there and we had an unforgettable evening first cooking dinner outside on the stone terrace in moonlight, and after that listening to the monk's apocalyptic visions of the future inside the church. He was talking in Russian and Erte translated for me. We slept on the church floor and woke up to the morning ceremony conducted by the monk and a woman who apparently also lived there.

To be honest I had slightly higher expectations for the wine festival but Orheiul Vechi and other things more than made up for it. We went for walks and to see some nightlife in Chisinau with Natalia, one of the friends I had met in Slovakia, and a few other friends. Later she invited me and Erte to spend a couple of days in her small town where she lived with her parents. There it seemed that we were eating all the time, but a peek in the cellar assured us that we wouldn't be making a too big hole in their stocks for the winter. They also had home made wine as almost all Moldovans in the countryside seem to do - it's a pride of the country. If you're traveling there just ask around in a village and people will be happy to sell you some for around 0.5 euros per liter. Having a chance to visit the wine cellar and taste their best stuff is another story, that's kept for family and friends.

Now I'm back in Bacau in Romania and will stay for a couple of days waiting for Erte who'll make the trip here by bicycle. Then we plan to travel together for some time, maybe until Turkey.

Added 2007-03-22: See also the picture gallery.

Moldavian villages and monasteries

Posted: 2006-10-03 23:25:56, Categories: Travel, Romania, Cycling, 465 words (permalink)

Traditional houses in the village of Pipirig Last week I crossed the Eastern Carpathians from Transsylvania to the region of Moldavia. On the way there were still two places which deserve a special mention. At Lacu Rosu, a landslide pushed trees to the lake long ago. Still today dozens of dead tree stumps stick out from the water creating an odd landscape. Soon after Lacu Rosu, the road went through the impressive Bicaz gorges, some 300 meters high walls on both sides of the road. In certain places the road actually was partly below the rock.

That was my farewell to the mountains for a while: after Bicaz the landscape turned into hills and later to flatland. My picture this time is from Pipirig, one of the villages where I could admire traditionally decorated houses. Some typical features are visible in the photo: a two-part gate featuring both a larger and smaller entrance, decorations on the walls and roof edges, and the ubiquitous horse-drawn carriage. I cannot count how many of them I've seen on this trip. The carriages normally move at about 10-15 km per hour, so usually at least ten times per day I find myself behind one. I take a look at my mirror making sure that no cars are right behind, and then accelerate to overtake as fast as possible.

In Moldavia I also went to see a couple of beautiful religious sites, namely the Neamt and Agapia orthodox monasteries. Although the trip was not a religious pilgrimage for me, the places were certainly worth a visit. I especially liked the Vovidenia hermitage close to the Neamt monastery and the older part of the Agapia monastery on top of a hill, featuring a pretty wooden church surrounded by a garden full of flowers.

At Lacu Rosu I also met Nelu, an avid cyclist who has traveled with the Romanian professional cycling team in many places around the world, working as a bicycle mechanic or volunteer organizer in the competitions. I got his contact info from a Romanian friend in Finland. It was very nice to spend a couple of days cycling with him, he was kind enough to reduce his normal average speed by about 10 km/h to match mine. :-)

At the moment my bike is at Nelu's apartment in Bacau and I'm on a short side trip using public transport. The main destination of this trip is an European capital - Chisinau in the Republic of Moldova! In Slovakia during Ecotopia biketour I met some Moldovans who are waiting for me there, and there's a big wine festival this weekend. I'll head to the border tomorrow, armed with a printout of a web page which says I should be able to get a visa free of charge, conveniently because of the festival. Well, I'll see what happens.

Memories from North-Eastern Hungary

Posted: 2006-09-06 02:01:15, Categories: Travel, Hungary, Cycling, 186 words (permalink)

I spent the last eight days cycling through the North-Eastern Hungary, stopping in a few places. The landscape was hilly in Eger and Miskolc, and then turned into great plains when continuing towards Debrecen. Here are a few nice memories from the area, this time written only as short notes:

  • Climbing up the very narrow stairs to the top of the minaret and tasting local wines in Eger
  • Enjoying delicious pörkölt (a meat stew) in Sajoszentpeter (near Miskolc) at the home of Gabi, a friend from the Hospitality Club
  • Looking down to the green Bükk plateau from the Tar-kö peak in the Bükk national park
  • Listening to the wind while camping wild by the Tisza river
  • Watching snakes wiggle on the ground and cranes fly across the sky in the Hortobagyi national park
  • Meeting the Balogh family in Bocskaikert
  • Taking a peek inside the impressive university main building in Debrecen

Tomorrow (or actually today, as it's already past midnight) I plan to reach Oradea in Romania. From there I'll continue towards the mountains again. New country, new adventures coming up.

(Slighly edited 2006-09-06 22:00)

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Copyright Arto Teräs <ajt@iki.fi>, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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