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Hiking in snowy Cappadocia

Posted: 2007-01-06 01:37:39, Categories: Travel, Turkey, 391 words (permalink)

Stone mushrooms near Zelve, Cappadocia, Turkey. I decided to spend Christmas 2006 in Cappadocia, central Turkey. It's an area where volcanic activity long ago created a bizarre landscape, and people have later contributed to that by digging an incredicble number of cave houses, churches and other holes in the soft rock.

Some of the cave house complexes are organized as museums. They were certainly interesting, but still better was to explore those which were just scattered around the edges of villages or waiting for visitors in the middle of nowhere. I enjoyed climbing on top the hills about five kilometers from the town of Ürgüp and admiring the landscape which had just been covered by a thin layer of fresh snow. Descending on the other side I arrived to a forest of funny towers and stone mushrooms, shown in the picture on the right.

It was funny that I was a few thousand kilometers south from my homeland but it was colder than in most parts of Finland. Temperature in Cappadocia was generally a few degrees below zero, at nights dropping to -10°C and below. On Christmas eve and day the ground was still bare, snow arrived in the morning of December 26.

My Chrismas eve dinner was Turkish food at a local restaurant in Ürgüp with Yuko, a Japanese friend whom I'd met earlier in Istanbul. After some soup and salad we ordered the local speciality Testi Kebab without really knowing what we're going to get. It turned out to be a pretty tasty meat and vegetables stew cooked inside a closed clay pot, which was broken in front of us to release the food from inside. The local red wine wasn't that great, white one which we had with our starters was better. For the dessert we had a plate of baklava (Turkish sweets) and tea. It was a nice and relaxed evening.

I celebrated Chrismas also by staying in a slightly better than usual (although not exceptional) hotel and going for a soak and massage in a hamam, a Turkish bath, on Christmas day. Most of the presents and cards which I'd sent from Istanbul didn't arrive in time, but I called my family and grandparents to say hello. My own best Christmas present, however, was the visa to India, which I was able to finally pick up at Ankara on December 29th.

Christmas shopping in the Grand Bazaar

Posted: 2006-12-23 11:49:07, Categories: Travel, Turkey, 722 words (permalink)

A shop in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. This year I'll celebrate the Christmas in Turkey, far away from my family and traditions in Finland. It has been refreshing to spend one December without being surrounded with Santa Claus decorations and Jingle Bells songs everywhere. It hasn't been a complete escape however: I devoted one day to shopping for presents and a couple of evenings to writing postcards.

Nowadays streets in Turkish cities are lined with small western-style shops, but markets and bazaars are still the liveliest places to shop. There you'll find also the best prices for fresh food, sweets, spices and many other things, after some negotiation of course. So I also headed to the most famous of them all, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.

Every shopkeeper knew at least "Hello", "How are you doing", "Where are you from" and numbers in English. As a proof of success of the tourism industry, surprisingly many could even produce a greeting in Finnish. Then some would actively start pushing their merchandise while others would let you wander around and take a more relaxed look. Perhaps needless to say that I preferred the latter. Of course I'd also engage in conversations which are part of the bazaar experience, but the more fruitful talks never started with "Would you like X? No. How about Y? No...". Having a couple of photos of my trip handy turned out to be useful: they spurred also some genuine interest beyond just getting my money. The lamp shop owner in the picture taught me some Turkish in return — and got a deal too. However, all in all I cannot say that I really enjoyed my time in the Grand Bazaar.

More pleasant experiences were the Spice Bazaar and other smaller bazaars and markets in Istanbul and Ankara. They were full of locals unlike the touristy Grand Bazaar. There was also shouting and pushing going on but it was different, because buyers generally knew what they wanted. Shopkeepers would also more readily give out free goodies for tasting and offer tea, especially in less touristy Ankara.

Ankara is far behind of Istanbul in the number of historical sights and lacks the attractive location by the sea, but it compensates with a generally more friendly atmosphere and less tourist scams. Even taxi drivers waved me to have tea with them without intention to make me take a taxi. And the landscape isn't bad either: the view from Atakule tower towards the mountains in the north is pretty amazing on a clear day.

Ankara is also the prime city to become familiar with the Turkish admiration of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. His mausoleum stands on top of a hill in the heart of the city surrounded by a large park, and smaller statues and pictures of him are abundant everywhere in Turkey. Atatürk was the first president of the country for 15 years in 1920's and 30's and implemented a shocking number of modernizations, including reforming the alphabet, giving women a right to vote and separating church from the state. Some of the changes must have been controversial at that time, but nowadays nobody seems to have a single bad word to say about him — at least not publicly. Partly it's a taboo: you'd need to have guts to criticize a man who has been given the name "The Ancestor of Turks", but he's also honestly greatly respected by the majority of people.

However, the number one reason for me to come to Ankara was to get my visa to India. I first went to the Finnish embassy to get the silly paper I mentioned in my previous blog entry and got ripped off 30 euros for that. To make the Indian visa officer satisfied still required a bank statement printout and a couple of photocopies but yesterday they accepted my application. I should be able to pick up my visa next Friday, but won't rejoice until I have it in my hand.

To send my best season's greetings to all the readers of my blog I prepared a Christmas and New Year card (also available in Finnish). If you can read Finnish, you might also enjoy the extensive report of the Riga–Warsaw section of my trip, which is now online. Enjoy your holidays if you have any, get some rest and have fun in year 2007!

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.

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