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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.


Cooking on the campfire

Posted: 2006-12-14 15:05:07, Categories: Travel, Turkey, 335 words (permalink)

Cooking fish on a wooden grill by the campfire. When approaching Istanbul we started making campfires more often than earlier during the trip. In many places forest was being cut and tractors were transporting small logs away so there were also usually plenty of loose pieces of wood available. The fire not only provided a welcome source of heat during chilly nights, it also gave better opportunities for cooking than the usual small pot on top of a gas cooker. It became dark already around five o'clock so we had plenty of time during the evenings.

By the Black Sea coast in Kiyiköy we bought two kilos of small fish, cooked half of it while staying in a pension which had a kitchen, and saved the rest for the following night. At our camp we covered the fish with a flour and spice mix and slowly grilled them on a grill which Emile prepared with wooden sticks. Although you cannot see it in the picture, there are also hot charcoals under the fish. Complemented with potatoes baked in the ashes, butter, salty cheese and fresh vegetables it made a delicious meal. That's how we celebrated the Finnish independence day, by the way.

Emile also showed us how to make pizza and quiche lorraine (a french pie) outdoors. The pizza we prepared on a heated stone while for the quiche lorraine we found an abandoned metal grill at a picnic site and used that.

Our staple food on the trip has been rice, which is easy to prepare on the gas cooker and make tasty with spices, fresh vegetables and occasionally some meat. Pasta is even faster to cook, but rice is more filling for the same amount of food. In the mornings we usually eat bread, cheese and yogurt (adding mysli, jam or whatever we happen to have available to the mix) and drink tea. Of course we also go to local restaurants to taste what each country has to offer. At least for me, that's an important part of the travel experience.

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.

Holiday apartment at Sunny Beach

Posted: 2006-11-22 10:39:27, Categories: Travel, Bulgaria, Hospitality exchange, 563 words (permalink)

Front view of a fishing boat in the port of Nesebar. A couple of days after leaving Varna, a November heat wave arrived in Bulgaria and we were enjoying 20 degree and even higher temperatures for a few days. By accident we got also a holiday apartment near one of the most famous beaches to match the weather.

Both Bulgarian and Romanian parts of the Black Sea coast have plenty of beach resorts which attract a large number of tourists during the summer and become almost deserted in the winter. Especially in Bulgaria investors seem to believe that more money is still waiting for takers. Hundreds of new hotels, villas and apartment buildings are being constructed and roadsides are cluttered with advertisements of the real estate companies.

We had just decided to take a look at the beach at a resort called Sunny Beach, when a friendly Bulgarian couple in their fifties came to talk to us. They were fascinated about our trip and invited us to stay at their place if we had time. Well, we had. :) It turned out that our new friends who lived in Sofia had recently bought not only one but two holiday apartments in a nearby apartment complex and we were offered to borrow one of them. So after three nights of camping we had like a package holiday weekend: beach, sunshine, swimming, short walk to a shiny new two-room flat with all the modern comforts. Just the crowds were missing.

Actually better than the beach at least at this time of the year was the historic town of Nesebar, which was also just a short walk from Sunny Beach. Nesebar is famous for ruins of ancient churches built between the 6th and 14th centuries. Old wooden and stone houses along narrow cobblestone streets gave it a fairy-tale town feel, especially now during off-season when it wasn't filled with tourists. We also loved the small port full of bright colors: nicely painted fishing boats floating next to the graffiti decorated pier. The picture I chose for this blog entry is a front view of one of the boats at night. As the sugar on top, in a restaurant in Nesebar we tasted superb grilled bluefish, the best fish meal during the whole trip this far.

After Sunny Beach and Nesebar just 20 km along the coast we found one of the best camping places on the trip. It was on the sea shore less than a kilometer from the main road, but nicely hidden so that we didn't need to worry about getting unexpected visitors. The sea had carried plenty of loose pieces of wood on the shore, so we made a campfire and sat around it listening to the sound of waves hitting the nearby rocks. The holiday apartment had been nice, but camping at that place still felt more like a traveler's way to live. We had even one more guy to chat with: another Lithuanian friend who traveled five days by bus and train to meet erte.

Yesterday we arrived in Burgas, walked around in the city a bit and went to a salsa party in the evening with a local Hospitality Club member. The city tour itself was not terribly interesting (except for the seaside park and the party, which were nice) but we met Emile, a 51-year old Belgian cyclist who's also on a long tour. So now we are three, heading towards Istanbul together.

Romania and Bulgaria joining the EU

Posted: 2006-11-13 19:36:47, Categories: Travel, General, Romania, Bulgaria, 722 words (permalink)

Two ladies in a horse cart in Marisel village, Romania. Both Romania and Bulgaria will join the European Union from the beginning of year 2007. On the streets it hasn't been much visible except for various signs telling about EU supported renovation and construction projects, but in conversations it's naturally a hot topic.

In both countries people in cities seems to be generally optimistic but there are also many who aren't really happy about the whole process. The marketing folks touted about more prosperity and other advantages, while critical voices during the negotiation process were few and far between. As the big date approaches also the less rosy aspects of EU integration are becoming more apparent.

Prices are rising, people say, while salaries are not. In particular property prices have climbed out of reach from ordinary people trying to save towards an apartment or house. After the collapse of communism apartments were generally given to the people living in them. Therefore most people have a place to stay, but for a young couple wishing to start a family the situation is difficult. Beneficiaries have been mostly the rich who have been able to work through corrupted municipality administrations. They are building ugly-looking but luxurious hotel complexes in places of natural beauty, eagerly waiting for new tourists.

EU will also impose new rules on the production of food, taxes on home-made alcohol and possibly outlaw certain traditional dishes. Otherwise most wouldn't care much of the whole EU thing, but invasions to the traditional ways of life is making people angry. Bulgarians have named their chief negotiator "the yes lady", saying she gave up too easily to all EU demands in order to guarantee the acceptance of Bulgaria for integration.

More positive changes brought by EU include efforts to reduce corruption, to fight organized crime, to increase transparency in the justice system and to improve the rights of ethnic minorities. There are also EU requirements concerning waste management and environmental protection which will hopefully result in a healthier environment for everybody.

Most of the debate around EU is centered around money. That's not a surprise, as it's a primarily economy-driven union. There may be some hard times in the beginning, but I have no doubts that eventually it will bring more wealth to the new regions. A more subtle question are the changes it will bring to the lifestyle. It's good if everyday life will become a bit easier and people will have more choice what to do with their lives. On the other hand, if every horse cart will be replaced by a tractor, if people will get their wine from a shop instead of their own or friend's barrel, if shepherds won't be following their sheep over beautiful hilly grasslands any more, something important will be lost forever.

Of course a lot of the changes have already been happening and would happen also without EU. It's the result of entering market economy and global markets after a long period of communism. Joining the EU will just speed up the whole process. Many young people have already for years moved abroad to gain better salaries and virtually every family has some family members or close friends working outside their homeland. EU will obviously make this even easier and it remains to be seen how many will return.

A detail which several Romanians mentioned to me is that while several Western European countries put restrictions on work permits for people coming from new EU member states, Finland decided to open doors for everybody. Traditionally Finland has been quite restrictive towards immigration, so it's interesting to see that in this case we're more open than many other EU member states.

Travelers in both Romania and Bulgaria are happy that becoming an EU citizen will mean visa-free travel to a larger number of countries. Curiously the change is not so big concerning traveling in Europe - neither Romanians nor Bulgarians have required visas for most European countries for years - but several Asian, South American and African countries will become easier to access after joining the EU.

One small change we'll all notice is that new banknotes will carry the text EBPO in addition to EURO and EYPΩ. Bulgarians are proud to mention that the cyrillic alphabet was invented by them (not Russians) and now it will become the third official alphabet in the European Union. Cool. :)

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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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