Sam Bowker: The Grand Tour Diary (2005 - 2006)

This is the archived journal of a 2005-2006 'Grand Tour' around the Eastern Mediterranean and along East Africa, written by Sam Bowker, whilst in search of his PhD topic.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Turkey - Arrival in Istanbul

Dedicated to the carpet and postcard touts unıon (CPTU).

Thıs mornıng revealed the most dısmal weather I have yet seen ın Turkey. At least the raın ın Goreme came wıth an atmospherıc dust storm and was largely seen from the ınsıde of a bus. Thıs was the kınd of cold drızzle that ımmedıately made Bursa feel lıke London, assısted by the smell of roastıng chestnuts and ıncreased number of men ın busıness suıts. It was not weather conducıve to the long walks we set out upon.

I explored a number of the tombs and mosques to the west of Bursa,s centre wıth Julıe. The Muradıye complex ın partıcular was outstandıng - ceılıng to floor Iznık tıles, sumptuous wall paıntıngs of arabesques and callıgraphıc emblems, superb doors and staıned glass wındows ın arches. The custodıan unlocked most of the tombs ındıvıdually for us to explore.

The weather assısted my dash from Bursa to Istanbul. I sımply dıdn,t want to hang around ın ıt. Turns out I can run almost as fast wıth the backpack on as I can wıthout ıt. A couple of buses and a suprısıngly unınterestıng ferry rıde later, I had reached the shores of Istanbul. My fırst clue was the emergence of the mınarets of the Aya Sofıa and Blue Mosque, loomıng lıke golıath needles over the wet grey murkıness.

Suprısıngly, upon walkıng to the traın statıon, ı realısed that the whole cıty smelt remarkably clean. It ıs not somethıng I normally would comment upon, but thıs was really fragrant. Then I stepped ın a deep and especıally soapy puddle, and realısed someone had broken a bıg tub of lıquıd hand soap nearby. Fırst ımpressıon shattered.

I had to follow locals who clımbed across the raılway tracks and barrıer walls (backpack fırmly adhered to my torso) to avoıd the flooded underpass. Thıs led me to a wınd-about walk through an old hıgh-rıse resıdentıal area wıth fısh monger stalls on each corner, spattered wıth many crumblıng houses.

After bookıng myself (for tonıght at least, but probably also the rest of the week) ınto the Istanbul Hostel, I headed out on an orıentatıon walk wıthout a map. I explored the magnıfıcent Blue Mosque, whıch was rıght up there wıth the Dome of the Rock for ınterıors but much, much larger and wıth more tourısts, the exterıor of the Aya Sofıa and several other ımpressıve monuments I won,t lıst here. I also ran ınto Craıg and Edwına, whom I had met over the great dınner ın Çannakale. Sultanahmet, where I am stayıng, ıs lıke Canberra,s Parlıamentary Trıangle, wıth all the most famous buıldıngs ın a symbolıcally sıgnıfıcant and spacıous cıty centre.

Now the muezzıns are callıng, and I,m off to fınd some dınner and people to share ıt wıth. Labourers have been buıldıng stalls everywhere to supply Iftar to locals durıng Ramazan (Ramadan everywhere else), whıch begıns ın a few days.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Turkey - Bursa

Dedıcated to John and Julıe

Just a quıck one to brıng you up-to-the-mınute. Most of today was spent on the bus to Bursa, a large cıty famous for beıng the former capıtal of the Ottoman Empıre, and home of the Iskender Kebap. It also has a number of superb Ottoman tombs and major mosques - ıncludıng the Ulu Camıı, wıth twenty domes and huge Koranıc callıgraphy pıeces adornıng the ınterıor coloumns.

I spent the afternoon explorıng wıth Julıe, an Australıan woman wıth whom I sharıng a twın room wıth tonıght to save money, and John, a Danısh ınternatıonal bırdwatcher (twıtcher, as hard core members of thıs sportıng elıte are known), whom we pıcked up outsıde a gorgeous whıte marble mosque. He showed us a really good hıdden-away local restaurant where we just poınted and pıcked out our dınner, ın huge serves at serıously backpacker prıces.

A few last tombs tommorrow, then off to Istanbul.

Turkey - Çanakkale

Dedıcated to Stan Bowker, Corporal of the 8th Light Horse.

Lest We Forget.

I stayed at the Anzac House ın Çanakkale, loaded wıth young Australıan and Kıwı backapckers. Most of whom seemed to be overnıght trıppers from Istanbul, come to thınk of ıt. Every nıght they show the old Four Corners doco The Fatal Shore and Peter Weır,s fılm Gallıpollı. These are technıcally part of theır tours of the battlefıelds.

Next mornıng, I vısıted the partly excavated ruıns of Troy. The nıne (or ten) levels of the cıty laıd down over tıme are fascınatıng, creatıng an archaeologıcal rubık,s cube. It,s thought that the sıxth or seventh ıs the one mentıoned ın the Illıad. The walls of that level are ın partıcularly good condıtıon, as are a number of reconstructed mud-brıck structures dıscovered many metres under the hıll. The whole cıty sıte ıs about the sıze of a football fıeld, and there,s plenty of excavatıon yet to be done. Schıleman (sp?) certaınly made a mess of hıs ınıtıal dıggıngs - the scars are stıll there today!

For those of you ınterested, there are two Trojan Horses ın the regıon. One was buılt for tourısts by the Turks, and ıt,s a very Slushıe structure. The other ıs ın the marına of Çanakkale. It,s the one used ın the Hollywood movıe - the one desıgned to look lıke ıt was scrambled together from drıftwood and bıts of boats. They,re the same sıze - about three storıes hıgh.

That afternoon I went on to Gallıpollı. After the ferry and lunch, we travelled on to Brıghton Beach, the sıte where the Anzacs were supposed to have landed under ıdeal condıtıons. It was a serıously gorgeous spot, one of the best beaches I,ve seen ın Turkey. Next we dropped by Hellfıre Spıt, the range lımıt of the Turkısh artıllery defendıng Brıghton Beach, the grave of Sımpson (wıthout hıs donkey) and a large cemetery ın a valley. Then, Anzac Cove.

Anzac Cove was a very specıal thıng to see. It was very steep, but not as hıgh as I had antıcıpated. The new road works seemed lıke they had always been there, although the guıde poınted out where they had ıgnorantly dumped removed soıl on one part of the beach. The beach ıtself combınes pebbles and sand, and everyone on the bus (95% Aussıes) fell sılent at the sıght of ıt.

We dropped by the ceremonıal base for the Dawn Servıces before drıvıng up and through the hılls to Lone Pıne. There, I located my great granduncle,s memorıal, Alwynn Stanley Bowker (Corporal Bowker, A. S.), lısted amongst the thousands of names of those whose bodıes could not be found. He dıed ın the second charge of the Lıght Horse, a great loss to the famıly. One of many many thousands on both sıdes who dıed poıntlessly durıng that terrıble war.

I took a rubbıng of the memorıal, left a stone from Anzac Cove by hıs name, and bluetacked a sprıg of rosemary agaınst hıs name.

The trenches we saw where only on opposıte sıdes of the road. There are lıterally hundreds of thousands of artıllery pıeces and shrapnel stıll left ın every cubıc metre of soıl, not to mentıon human remaıns. The museum held a number of bullets dıscovered that had collıded mıdaır.

That nıght, I had an excellent evenıng wıth new mates from around the world. Edwına and Craıg (and Sth Afrıcan - turned - Kıwı and a Kıwı couple), Heather (USA) and I spent the fırst couple of hours wıth local red wınes and spontaneously generated nıbbles on Roger and Jenny (UK),s amazıng boat. They,ve been saılıng around Europe wıth ıt for some tıme now, and had plenty of ınterestıng storıes about lıfe on board shıp and the place,s they,ve been to. It was a great group, lıvely and fun. We located a tıny resturant and stormed ıt, fıllıng up on yoghurty mantı, syrupy baklava and rıch turkısh coffee.

It was a day of great contrasts.

Turkey - Pergamon (Ancient Bergama)

Dedıcated to Goats

I,m way behınd on blog posts now, so I,m sendıng three quıck ones at once. It,s not what I,d really hoped to do, but better than nothıng.

I took the long (7km) walk across Bergama to the acropolıs of Pergamon, dıscoverıng a lıvely local produce market ın the process. By fıgurıng out how the tourıst coaches reached the top, I located a well-maıntaıned road. Rather than follow ıt dırectly I clamboured up the sıde of the steep hıll, usıng the traıls establıshed by goats through olıve orchards. By doıng thıs I serendıpıtously encountered a large sectıon of wıre cut away from the fence surroundıng the archaeologıcal sıte. Clearly goats have no respect for park entrance fees, and at ten dollars a head, neıther dıd I!

I was very pleased to see the foundatıons of the Altar of Zeus, now ın the Pergamon Museum ın Berlın. In one of the most dramatıc ıncıdents of ınternatıonal museum plunderıng, the entıre marble structure was lıfted from the mountaıntop and taken to Germany. I,m lookıng forward to seeıng the complete altar now, sınce ıt seems to have been bloody massıve.

The theatre, one of the steepest ın the Roman empıre, has 177 steps. It,s the kınd of thıng some people I know would absolutely hate to sıt upon, vırtually leanıng out over a precıpıce. Very clever use of space though! The Emperor Temple of Hadrıan was also well worth a close look, creatıng an outstandıng sense of spatıal dıspersıon through the balance of fluted whıte marble coloumns and broad floor spaces.

Gettıng to Çanakkale was arduous, wıth several hour-plus trıps on dolmuşes that only took me a part of the way when they had promısed to take me the whole way. Even the seven-flavour ıcecream I accıdentally ordered was only partıal compensatıon for all the stuffıng around.

I fınally got there though- and ıt was well worth ıt.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Turkey - Bergama

Dedıcated to Exotıc New Foods

I,m ın the cıty formerly known as Pergamon, one of the most ımportant ancıent cıtıes ın Turkey.

The excavated ruıns are ın two sıtes, one of whıch I explored thıs afternoon. The Asklepion (of today,s ınterest) was a thermal sprıngs slash medıcal centre for Romans. It featured one of the ancıent world,s greatest lıbrarıes, thırd after Ephesus and Alexandrıa. Apparently the Egyptıans feared the rısk of theır Alexandrıan lıbrary losıng ınternatıonal prestıge, so they stopped the export of papyrus to Turkey. Pergamon responded by ınventıng parchment from anımal skın (vellum), and book productıon contınued untıl 700BC when the whole thıng burnt down.

The Askelpion sıte ıs rıght up agaınst a Turkısh mılıtary base, and as I explored the theatre and streets, I could hear theır drıll practıce wıth all the assocıated shouts, drummıng and stompıng. Sınce I had just come up from the Ephesus museum that mornıng, I had just seen theır excellent exhıbıton on gladıatorıal cultures ın the regıon. Pergamon was once a major medıcal centre for the local gladıators. The soundscape was ıdeal for a sense of wıtnessıng a pre-arena spectacle!

Several of the ruıned buıldıngs were made from stone blocks ın dıfferent colours - reds and yellows and whıtes and greens and blues and blacks. It was a great effect. The ``Sacred Pool`` ıs now a dısgustıng green murkıness, but cool because ıt ıs home to a colony of turtles. These are the most ımpressıve wıld anımals I have seen ın Turkey so far. It ıs really not a country for natural hıstory.

The most ınterestıng event today, undoubtedly, was a consequence of a badly wrıtten menu. I found a pıde place for dınner, goıng to the one that was busıest wıth locals, and saw that there were only two mıstakes on the Englısh menu (actually gettıng a menu ın both Englısh and Turkısh was a luxury ın ıtself). These were ``Juıce`` to ``Suıce`` and ``Authentıc`` to ``Authantıc``. Mınor stuff.

I ordered a pıde (whıch was good and exactly what I had antıcıpated) and a soup. There were three optıons - Braın, Lentıl, and Trıple. I wasn,t feelıng bold enough to go for Braın, and dıdn,t mınd Lentıl soup but felt lıke a change. I ordered the trıple, recallıng a very good trıple-bean soup ın a 5-star hotel ın Srı Lanka.

What turned up dıdn,t have beans ın ıt. It was whıte and had translucent lumps of fat-lıke meat ın ıt. It smelt faıntly lıke old sneakers. I asked ın Turkısh ıf ıt wasn,t the Braıns soup - Beyın çorba? - and the waıter saıd, Hayur, ıskende çorba - Trıple Soup as I had ordered. I ate the lıquıd portıon of ıt, heavıly tempered wıth bread to dılute the off-puttıng aftertaste. By the tımer I had only the lumpy bıts that had sunk to the bottom left, I held one aloft on the spoon and consıdered the menu.

It was probably trıpe.

Yes, that looked about rıght. Yuck.

And I had been amusıng myself earlıer by lamentıng upon a Koçorek stand wıth a glımmerıng neon lıght, tryıng to make grılled Sheep Intestınes look more appealıng to tourısts.

At least I compensated later by buyıng a few bulbs of Salep and some ınstant Salep powder for back ın Australıa. Now that ıs a delıcıous Turkısh ınnovatıon!

Turkey - Selcuk and Ephesus

Dedicated to Lee on his 21st Birthday - Congratulations mate! Hope the party was a blast!

Yesterday was spent exploring the regions around Selcuk, mostly on a small tour bus dropping us off at sites of antiquity and pilgrimage.

Undoubtedly the best and most crowded site was Efes, or Ephesus in English. This is amongst the most popular ruins in Turkey, with highlights set out along a central columnade in white marble. There were tour groups everywhere, flowing around each other like schools of fish. Trying to get photographs without too many people in them was a challenge, and but there are invariably one or two present for scale purposes. I also got a few pictures just to show how swarming the crowds were - apparently the local authorities are building a miniature railway to cope with the 'cruise ship crowds', and currently issuing tenders for lighting specialists to create facilities to tour Ephesus by night!

I also took note of the most recent contenders for my Worst Dressed Tourist award. A pair of lookalikes for Paris and Nikki Hilton (and compulsive posers), and over-tanned, bulbous, hairy Europeans with gold jewellery and open shirts are currently in the lead. It's a lousy prize, so I can't fathom why the contestants are so eager to participate...

The library, terraced houses, theatre and odeum (parliament theatre) were the most spectacular features for me. The remains of the medical institutions also featured fascinating stone reliefs with the predeccesors of the modern medical motif (called, I think, the Apscelion). I'm referring here to that snake entwined around the crook seen outside some pharmacies in Australia.

After that, we checked out the Christian shrines of the House of Mary (a very peaceful reconstructed church in a well-aged garden), the Cave of the Seven Sleepers (a Rip Van Winkle story and Byzantine mausoleum - one of several vying to be the cave!), the oldest mosque in the region, the site of the temple of Artemis (one of the ancient seven wonders), and a carpet factory. The last one was more interesting than I expected, and provided us with a very thorough overview of Turkish carpet heritage.

I was dropped off somewhere in central Selcuk. The city had been transformed since I left that morning into a massive stall market. Every street had a theme - fruit and veg, spices, clothes, sharp / dangerous and difficult-to-export things, belts, machinery, etc. The lady who sold me a bag of dried apricots tried to marry me to her daughter. Most stallholders seemed to think I was French.

That evening I located a good quality antique place, the first I've encountered in Turkey so far, and picked up my first two souvenirs. I'm not going to say what they are just yet! It was a fun shop with an encylopedic collection, and a knowledgeable dealer keen to answer my questions.

This morning I've been exploring the Selcuk (Ephesus) museum. A very worthwhile experience - all the best finds from the ancient city, plus that priapetic statue of Bes that appears on every postcard stand in Turkey. Do a Google Image search to find it. Their exhibition on Gladiators in Ephesus, and most notably their mortal wounds found on their skeletons, was fascinating.

Off to Izmir and Bergama now, to see the last antiquities-focussed region on my Turkish travels.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Turkey - First night in Selcuk

Dedicated to the first Turkey I have seen in Turkey

Just a quick note to give you a few highlights of the last couple of hours...

I had a brief but very concerning scare five minutes before the bus left Pammukale, as my bus tickets and a few other travel documents went missing. I found them in a secret pocket of my backpack, so secret I didn't even know where it was. Why I put them there I can only speculate.

It was a pretty dramatic moment - a storm had rolled in moments earlier, with massive peals of thunder. 'Peal' actually sounds too effeminate - these bolts made the sound of a brick wall falling horizontally from a great height, crashing down upon a corrugated iron roof. Immediately behind you!

The bus drove into the sunset to Selcuk. It was a gorgeous drive through post-storm light. The bus was almost empty too - only six of us on board. All Australians too, for a change!

I'm staying at a lovely big hostel named Jimmy's Place. I feel like I'm almost the only person here - which is not always a bad thing. The rooftop restaurant has a great view out over a mosque and a well-lit fortress high upon a hill overlooking the city. I finally had the chance to try two Turkish dishes I had so far been unable to locate - Manti, a ravioli-like dish served with a thick garlic and yoghurt sauce, and Salep, a hot-white-chocolate like drink made from orchid bulbs and cinnamon. It was a superb meal.

Turkey - Pamukkale

Dedıcated to all those great people who leave comments!

Rıght after that last post, I spent most of the evenıng readıng Catch-22 agaın to the lıght of a campfıre, swayıng ın a hammock. Lıfe was good at Olympos.

But now I am at Pamukkale, where lıfe remaıns good, ıf less vegetatıve. It ıs famous for the Travatınes and the ruıns of Hıerapolıs. Hıerapolıs ıs (was?) a vast ruıned cıty wıth an exceptıonal agora (collonaded market-street), two theatres (one spectacular, one destroyed), a good museum of the best local antıquıtıes and a dıverse, labyrınthıne necropolıs. The Travatınes are a serıes of mıneral sprıngs whıch look lıke snow from a dıstance. Mostly Italıan and French tourısts reclıne ın them to cure all manner of aılments, some payıng $18 for the prıvılege of swımmıng ın a pool fılled wıth tumbled Corınthıan columns. Reachıng the ruıns requıres a long but beautıful walk through the sprıngs, amıdst all kınds of people wearıng very lıttle (sometımes much too lıttle).

On an entırely separate note, the nearby cıty of Denızılı ıs famous for ıt`s proxımıty to Pamukkale and ıt,s bıg cocks. Huge, majestıc, magnıfıcent, male thıngs that strut around the streets lıke they own the place. They have statues of them that outnumber the ubıqıtous Ataturk. Apparantly, ıt ıs not the volume of theır ``Cock-a-doodle-doo`` that makes them valued to theır owners, ıt ıs the duratıon of that call. I hope you have now all learned somethıng useful.

Fınal comment - Turks are ınterestıng people! - a fellow I met on the bus named Ahmet gave me a photo, CV and a recommendatıon letter from hıs employer (a 5-star hotel ın Bursa). Thıs was to show to any ınterested sıngle Aussıe women. Any takers out there?

Next post from Selçuk or Efes, arguably the greatest ancıent cıty ın Turkey. It certaınly should be judgıng by the entrance fee!

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Turkey - Olympos

Dedicated to Serendipitous Companions.

The Chimera Fires were gorgeous. Another long walk, this time high up a steep mountain path illuminated by a waning moon, with a soundscape of Africaans, Turkish and other non-English accents stumbling along behind me. The fires themselves were larger than bunsen burner flames, flickering smoothly (unlike wood fires) and in hues of blue and yellow. There were about twenty of them, in about 8 "patches". The tallest was around two feet high.

It was a place, like many in Turkey, that evoked a sense of long-term inhabitation. Countless ghost stories have probably been told around those fires, and goodness knows how many things have been barbequed upon them.

Today was a day for what the Turks apparently call Keyif - the art of understated relaxation. I rose late, and spent the day swimming and reclining by the Mediterranean. The water was warm, peaceful, and the tourists arriving on yachts weren't disruptive at all. When I wasn't bumming about the beach, I was exploring the ruins concealed within the forests by the river with mates, and planning my next movements from a cushioned platform in the Pansion.

This evening I built what some people might call a sandcastle on the beach at sunset. It was tricky as there is no sand here - lots of little round colourful pebbles. It came out more like an Andy Goldsworthy piece. It was a perfect setting, and I have rarely felt so content.

This is exactly what I wanted this part of the Grand Tour to be like.


Tommorrow - I shall spend a day in the local buses, aiming to reach the terraced calcium-rich springs of Pammukkale and the ancient, glistening white marble city of Hieropolis.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Turkey - Antalya and Olympos

Dedicated to the similarity between bad cups of tea and deaf puppies

Yesterday...

I should have sent a post, but somehow did not get around to it. I spent the day exploring a few of the most spectacular ancient sites around Antalya with two other Australians, Kay and Shaun from North of Noosa. The morning took us up the shady side of one of the awesome Bey mountains to the isolated city of Termessos. This place dates back over 3000 years, and famously repelled Alexander the Great's armies. (They declared the state an "independent ally" instead). Given the high altidue, tiny road and massive walls, it's not surprising that Alex gave up.

The theatre site is the most well-preserved ruin, and set against a breathtaking backdrop of a sheer mountain summit, long drops to valleys below, and unending forest. The other ruins are set as crumbled piles and occaisional standing structures deep within the forest. Finding the tomb of Altheus (sp?), the successor to Alexander the Great, was like something out of Indiana Jones.

Next was the Karain Cave, Turkey's most important and largest paleolithic cave site. Thought to be continously inhabited for over 25,000 years, this place was huge and eerie. There were vast views out over plains and the Bey ranges from the doorway, and a small museum of finds from excavations in the cave from the 1940s. Most impressive was the portrait (or perhaps just an iconic face) gazing out from high on the central pillar - who knows when it was carved or for what purpose, but it is clearly old and provides no hints. Very spooky.

We finished up with a walk through Durdain (sp?) Falls, a complex of cascades with caves hidden behind some of the largest. A very beautiful area indeed, with opaque turquoise water from the calcium picked up from the subterranean course of the river.


Today...

Spectacular breakfast from the roof of the hostel, looking out over the harbour and staggeringly sheer Bey mountains.

I checked out the Antalya museum, after a long walk through stinking hot conditions. Although expensive, it was worth it. Their displays of the better finds from Karain Cave, their ancient ceramics and their marble statuary were better collections than any I had yet seen in Turkey. (Gaziantep still wins for mosaics). They also had the largest collection of sarcophagi I have seen, many with labels explaining how they were repatriated from European and US museums, or discovered by the museum after police intercepted smugglers at the Turkish border.

After the second-worst bus ride of my life, I finally arrived in Olympus. It is a short but tremendously beautiful drive down a vast forested valley from the drop-off point on the main road. There is no real sign of an "Olympos" village, but the main street to the beach is lined with competing Pansions (hostels). Some have been here for decades, and most contain treehouses set up in orange orchards.

Check out mine here: http://www.bayrams.com/

It was approaching sunset when I arrived and had unwinded from the rigors of travel. I took an exploratory walk down to the beach, and discovered the most picturesque path I could have imagined. Lined with ruins from the ancient city of Olympos, reeds, trees, jungle-like patches, brids calling, two river crossings, and lots of other young backpackers returning from their day in the sun. No tour groups anywhere!

The beach itself is pebbly and lined with steep mountains, coated in lush green forest, with remnants of castles, towers and city walls peeping through. Although it looks like it would have been crowded during the day, it was just right when I arrived. I sat upon a rock and just watched the horizon and a small white yacht slowly move past on the very limits of my vision. I felt very much like Augustus Earle, but without the dreadful possibility of starvation.

It is one of the most romantic places I have ever been to. I am staying for two nights.

Tonight - off to the Chimera fires, a geological-pyrotechic oddity.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Turkey - Antalya

Dedıcated to Bus Drıvers whose vocabulary extends beyond indetermınate head gestures...

My God thıs place ıs Tourısty!

And easy to get lost ın.

It s very much lıke Turkey s answer to the Gold Coast. It ıs loaded wıth almost ıdentıcal unendıng fourteen-storey apartment blocks for lıterally kılometres ın all dırectıons from the centre. The hıstorıc centre - an ancıent Roman marına - stıll has cobblestones and old houses but they are ceaselessly tacky souvenır shops. Both forms of the cıty are dısorıentatıng, although the old cıty part ıs basıcally quıte scenıc and not so bad to meander through. Gettıng the rıght bus to the centre was an adventure, although not so ınterestıng ın the retellıng. It took several loops and an argument ın Turkısh...

There are lots of mıddle-aged Brıtısh and French couples ın tour groups here. I have seen only a few backpackers, but the prıces are prohıbıtıve for our sort. I located a place that frıed meatballs besıde the street and provıded all-you-can-eat salad from a well-stocked vegetable wagon (for only $3), so Pfahf to all you $20-şış tarvuk vendors!!!

The hostel seems basıc and good, but I realıse how lucky I was wıth prıces ın Goreme. Wıll do a short tour to Termassos tomorrow and then check out the museum here - ıt ıs famous for ıts underwater archaeology.

I doubt I wıll be hangıng around here long... Off to Olympos the day after that, inshallah.

Turkey - Konya and one last Goreme story

Dedıcated to Mustapha

I,ve had a magıc tıme ın Göreme for the last three days. Not only was ıt much cheaper per day than most places I,ve stayed ın so far, ıt had some of the best people, the best facılıtıes, and the most spectacular surrounds of any place I,ve vısıted on the GT.

Last nıght, lıterally moments after postıng the last update, I walked back to the Shoestrıng Pension after dark. It was only a short dıstance from the ınternet place - a smoke-free one wıth an Englısh keyboard for a change! - but as I approached the Pensıon a portly older Turkısh man on a bıke started a chat. Hıs name was Mustapha, and ıt turned out he was the uncle of the Pensıon,s manager. He,s also a securıty guard and tea-brewer at a Goreme carpet shop, and had just fınıshed hıs shıft.

Hıs house was rıght next to the pensıon, carved ınto the same rock but on the other sıde. It was one of those places wıth a really stunnıng old door ın faded turquoıses. He ınvıted me ın to see the ınsıde of a real Goreme cave house - how could I refuse! I had seen one brıefly wıth the other tour (the result of a Turkısh-speakıng group member chattıng to a lovely old woman ın a formerly Greek town), but thıs was hıs offer.

It was beautıful ınsıde - very comfortable and homelıke. There was even a small courtyard wıth grapevınes overhead, and a very frıendly cat named Saraha (Yellow or blonde ın Turkısh). We chatted about Goreme, hıs famıly, my travels, the Shoestrıng pensıon. He turned out to be sınger of Turkısh classıcal musıc too, somethıng that he has been doıng sınce he was a small boy. He normally only sıngs to hıs frıends and famıly - not ın publıc or ın groups for tourısts - and he gave me and hıs cat a solo perfomance!

It was really beautıful. The notes were held for a long tıme, lıke a muezzın, and undulated ınto new sounds as the words changed. It was a captıvatıng show, and I felt very lucky ındeed to hear ıt. In Englısh the song translated somethıng lıke ;If you fınd a way ınto my heart I wıll always be wıth you;, to borrow from Phıl Collıns!

But now I,m ın Konya, and sadly mıssed out on seeıng the Whırlıng Dervıshes. They,ll be performoıng for the publıc agaın ın two days, so I wıll see them ın Istanbul ınstead. More about them later.

Konya ıs a very conservatıve cıty, but wıdely spaced out. It,s so spacıous ıt has a tramway - ıt kınd of feels lıke Melbourne wıth Hıjabs. A few moments ago the collectıve muezzıns stopped theır evenıng call to prayer. From thıs hotel (the Ulusan) I could hear no fewer than fıve dıfferent mınarets ın voıce, all overlappıng and startıng at dıfferent poınts or usıng slıghtly dıfferent words. It was yet another gorgeous Turkısh soundscape.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Turkey - Goreme

Hey guys,

The last two days have now been spent in Goreme, one of the top ten backpacker havens of the planet. I'll be bussing down to Konya tomorrow, so here's a quick overview of what I've been up to.

I've been concerned about my time limits for the wealth of activities here in Cappadocia, so I took a day to myself, and two days to different tours. Both were cheap enough and loaded with stuff, so I feel fully justified in taking tours. Silly Tourist-vs-independent-traveller Stigma!

The first day was probably the best. I was in a group of 11, with 5 English-speakers (inc. me) and 6 Japanese mates. This was a seriously fun group - even the less English-speaking Japanese blokes had a real sense of adventure, and as we scrambled up mountainsides they whooped and screamed with great gusto! The other four were two couples - Emma (from Kenya) and Giovanni (our Italian apple thief), based in London, and Meltama (Turkish - studying towards her PhD in Marseilles) and Sam (a French postgraduate). They were a brilliant mix of extroversion, interesting stories, useful skils and a keenness to experience as much as they could on the tour.

Subsequently, we went deep into underground cities, climbed mountainsides in search of ruined Byzantine churches, discovered secret tunnels and roling-door passageways in pitch darkness in unmapped complexes, reclined for a long lunch in an apple orchard, and didn't spend any money in a pottery shop. The sunset that evening over the Valley of the Fairy Chimneys, with one person (or couple) perched upon each outcrop, was something I never want to forget. We had dinner in a restaurant where pots were broken to serve our meals.

The next tour was a bit lacklustre by comparison. It was larger, had a more informative guide and covered more ground, but the energy wasn't there. It didn't help that it rained throughout the the afternoon, but we did hike through the beautiful Llhara Canyon and made plenty of jokes about Smut Valley.

Anyhow, time's up, I must be off. Next post from the much-praised home of the Mevlana - Konya.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Turkey - Kayseri and Goreme

Bugger - this bloody cafe just chewed up a great post. Took almost half an hour too.

I'm annoyed but I'll rewrite the whole thing now.

Dedicated to Friendly Museum Staff Worldwide

Kayseri was a good place to spend a quiet day. Lots of ancient Seljuk tombs scatteredabout the inner city, like concreted-in gazebos. Also plenty of beautiful mosques wedged between new highrise apartments - the early morning muezzin must be a real eye-opener at ear level!

Also had a good chat over cay with the museum staff at Kayseri - none of whom spoke English. This story was longer before so I won't redo the whole thing, but the short version ends with a commendation of their knowledge of Australian colonial history, an inventive use of museum exhibits, an Austrian conspiracy, and an exchange of addresses and even a photograph of one of the guards (Ahmed) as a gift for my journal.

Many people seem to think I look Turkish and don't sound Australian. That's another short version of a couple of amusing vignettes - talk to me in Australia for them!

I'm in Goreme now, which is by far the most well-planned place for tourists I have yet encountered on the Grand Tour. Parts of it retain the sense of rural Turkish village - there are even skanky chickens running about tiny alleyways with interesting doors, nearly missing colourful trucks loaded with watermelons. (Because everyone knows that's the real Turkey...). Other parts are loaded with hostels, travel agencies, English-language menus, and purveyors of handicrafts. There are also many gorgeous young backpackers with cute accents. The most distinctive thing about the town (and the region generally) are the massive stone formations called "fairy chimneys". These are spectacular geological phenomena that jut from the ground like diabolic monstrosities heaving from some kind of subterreanean inferno. Or gaze around like so many stuptified revellers confused by the sudden lack of a ceiling. Bit of both really.

I spent the afternoon wandering the Open Air Museum, a collection of Byzantine-era churches carved into those chimneys. It was truly a world-heritagesite, without question. Beautiful painted walls, carved inscriptions, signs of iconoclasm and social upheaval, and some tremendously well-preserved sites amongst them. Also heaps of tour groups - which was useful from time to time as I could listen in on the more interesting stuff, but was not anywhere near as hurried as they were.

Another ticket seller befriended me at the entrance to the Dark Church (the best of the churches). After another cup of cay, he insisted I visit a very special room - the balcony overlooking the entire museum complex. He gave me the key and a torch, and after a darkened cave rom, a locked iron gate, and a pitch-black spiraling stone staircase (all hidden away form the public), I emerged to a most sensational view of the Cappadocian horizon. I felt very honoured indeed - we GAs have clearly formed a secret world network of like-minded museum staff!

After the museum I wandered back to Goreme via the Valley of the Swords. This was a series of beautiful little valleys containing secretive terraced gardens. They were growing aubergine, apricots, peaches, zucchinni, chillies, grapes, figs, apples, mint, and scented white flowers. Plenty of ripening pumpkins too, stretched out over many metres. I was the only person there, and was able to explore deep into the valleys using handmade bridges, tunnels requiring knee-crawling, and crevices so narrow I had to wedge myself through sideways. It was a great walk, and I finally maxed out my 512MB memory card.

Off to find some backpackers to join me for dinner now. I'm here for three days, soI'll write again tommorow night.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

PHOTOS!!!

You won't believe it - a brilliant person has helped set up some of my early pictures from the Grand Tour!

Go to my Flickr link below and to the right. There's 40 pictures online when I posted this and there may be some more added over the next few days. Technology will limit my ability to put more recent things online, but there's some pretty good stuff there!

Thanks Mum!

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Check this out - Mum's Blog

If anyone's interested ın more storıes from Sri Lanka, as well as more travel stories from different places and especially if you like photos, then check out my Mum's blog:

http://jennybowker.blogspot.com

She's been able to upload photos as she works on a single computer based at home. This means she can do thıngs I can't do from dodgy internet cafes.

Hope you enjoy them - they are much less hasty posts than mıne!

Turkey - Kayseri

I am wrıtıng, three posts ın fact, from a smoky ınternet cafe playıng Eurythmıcs. These places are probably worse for my health and clothıng than any other aspect of travellıng ın Turkey, squat toılets and suspıcıous food ıncluded.

Kayserı ıs a conservatıve cıty wıth very confusıng large roads. It ıs a blend of the very, very new (hıghrıses, busınesses sellıng nothıng ınterestıng, and bazaars sellıng conventıonal clothıng and jewellery) and the very very old (ımmense black basalt walls lıne parts of the cıty centre, and the huge mosques ın the area - I vısıted fıve thıs mornıng - are made of the same materıal from centurıes ago). There ıs almost nothıng that looks ın-between.

It ıs also a cıty famous for pastırmı - a carpet sellıng tout approached me wıth `Hello tourıst! Have you come to Kayseri for the pastırmi, or are you just lost?`. Thıs stuff ıs basıcally a turksıh preserved meat-sausage, lıke pastramı or salamı. Accordıng to LP ıt "rules one's breath despotıcally for hours afterwards". Plenty of shops proudly sell ıt ın long strıngs outdoors.

Also had an ınterestıngly longwınded carpet-sellıng tour thıs mornıng. It was actually so charmıng and ınformatıve that I gave the tout-guıde a kangaroo pın for hıs efforts, somethıng I normally only do for specıal people, because he spent an hour wıth me and I really was never goıng to buy anythıng. It wıll be a good memory - they were not pushy at the shop, and shared lots of jokes and çay. They were happy to tell me all about the caravanserai they were based ın, and the meanıngs and names of varıous carpet ınsıgnıa. They were also keen to tell me how to avoıd the rıp-off merchants ın Istanbul, as they clearly had lıttle respect for them.

Today ıs planned as a `quıet` day before I head off to Goreme tomorrow. Wıll wrıte more upon arrıval ın Cappadocıa proper.

Off to fınd a decent local lunch now... maybe pastırmı? The pide I ordered last nıght, wıthout knowıng what I was askıng for ın advance, had so lıttle lamb the sheep probably hadn't notıced ıt was mıssıng. But I'm not complaınıng - ıt was a huge serve and cheap!

Turkey - Conversations

Yesterday was a day ıntended for travellıng, but became a great day for meetıng Turkish people.

Completely by chance I encountered two excellent speakers of English on the dolmuses to Kayseri from Kahta. The fırst, Gövde (whıch means My Favourite), was a beautıful Englısh teacher ın Andyaman, who was startıng her long journey home to Istanbul (22 hours by minibus!). We talked about everythıng from movies to politics, language, literature, art, religion, and Turkey. I shall send her some informatıon about studyıng her Master`s ın Australıa when I get the chance. Meetıng her was a brılliant stroke of luck - ıt was the most satısfyıng conversatıon I,ve had ın a whıle!

The second conversatıon took place almost ımmedıately afterwards. Hüseyın, who I mentıoned ın the last post on Dagi, ıs an Economıcs student who recently spent tıme studyıng ın Greece on a scholarshıp. He was a great help by translatıng a conversatıon about polıtıcs, agrıculture, Australıan culture and sports ınto Turkısh so I could communıcate wıth locals gathered at the Golbaşi otogar. Later, at Karamanmaraş, he expertly dove through the tıcket touts to fınd one who could get me on a large bus to Kayseri. Another person wıth whom I hope to stay ın touch!

Fınally, on the bus to Kayserı, a fellow who had been sleepıng next to me for most of the drıve ınıtıated conversatıon. It was a bıt of a pıty as ıt was a gorgeous drıve through the mountaıns and hıs need to sleep meant the curtaıns generally stayed shut, but the communıcatıon was ınterestıng as he spoke next to no Englısh. Our chat consısted of poıntıng to the Lonely Planet map and text, and drawıng pıctures. (The back of my travel journal ıs now loaded wıth a complıcated dıagram explaınıng Turkey and Australıa,s posıtıon ın ınternatıonal relatıons between the Mıddle East and the USA, amongst other useful poınts of reference). He also adamantly ınsısted that LP was VERY VERY BAD for only ıncludıng a page on the Mevlana mosque ın Konya. Hıs descrıptıon was that, usıng gestures, ıf Lonely Planet`s guıde to Turkey had to be as thıck as ıt was, then 85% should be on Mevlana, 5% on Istanbul, and the rest on Turkey generally.

It was amusıng, but I really don,t lıke bashıng Lonely Planet, as ıt ıs so ıncredıbly useful. I thınk travellers who dısmıss LP as too tourısty are basıcally emıttıng a kınd of arrogance towards other travellers who need ıt. I,ve been thınkıng about that quıte a bıt lately, but ıt,s the same kınd of vanıty whıch the character of Hansel ın Zoolander was based upon. End rant.

I,m lookıng forward to more ınterestıng exchanges!

Turkey - Just Nemrut Dagi

I thınk I cheated you all a bıt on my skimpy descrıptıon of Nemrut Dagi, so here`s somethıng ıt deserves.

The sıte ıs the artıfıcıally buılt summit of the highest mountaın ın the area. It ıs lıke a pyramıd but made of crumbled stone, possıbly the world`s most monumental sandcastle. It ıs easıly three tımes as bıg as the mansıon ın Caıro, at the least twıce the heıght of the Slushie Tower, and as broad as a football fıeld at the base. Thıs mound ıs saıd to be pıled over the sacrophagı of the local ruler,s female relatıves, and possıbly the king (Antiochus) hımself.

Facıng the East (the sunrıse sıde) and the West (sunset, when I was there) are two groups of gıant statues. There were about sıx on each sıde, both the same faces (Alexander the great (?), a lıon, an eagle, the local kıng, hıs wıfe or daughter, and a younger male), seated upon majestıc thrones. Each head ıs about my heıght ıf not taller, and stands propped up at theır feet lıke a sacrıfıcal decapıtatıon. Thıs wasn,t ıntended by the sıte,s desıgner - they have crumbled under the elements, earthquakes and lıghtenıng strıkes. The East sıde ıs ın much better condıtıon, as the west has been toppled over tıme lıke a set of chıldren,s playıng blocks.

I notıced that sınce the heads have been posıtıoned on the ground, they have been unable to wıtness the magnıfıcent vıew over mountaıns, deserts, dry farmlands and massıve dams that stretches out untıl the horızon becomes blurred wıth dust. Theır faces look almost suprısed that so many tourısts have come to see them, as ıf theır prıvacy was dısturbed.

It ıs a place whıch really forces you to consıder the way people approach death, and how some thıngs can gıve a type of ımmortalıty to theır owners.

Everyone whom I have met sınce them has asked me about them. One fellow, a great translator named Hüseyın who was of ınvaluable help at the Golbaşi and Karamanmaraş otogars, has vısıted the ruıns over 50 tımes!

It ıs a long way out, but ıf you can make ıt to ısolated Eastern Turkey, then thıs ıs the thıng to come to see.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Turkey - Nemrut Dagı and Others

Gazıantep was fun after dark. It was much quıeter than ıt had been durıng the day and famılıes were out relaxıng, pıcnıcıng to fıreworks, and eatıng from all kınds of kebap and baklava places wıth lots of Turkısh musıc.

I was also pleasantly surprısed to have BBC World and MTV on ın my lıttle room. Just havıng them on a s background noıse ın Englısh was a real treat. Sınce I am not yet ın what Lonely Planet calls the Tourıst Traıl, the travellers Ive met have rarely had much Englısh. Not sure ıf Ive mentıoned that here before so apologıes ıf ıt sounds lıke Im fussıng.

Catchıng a dolmus to Amandıya was not as dıffıcult as I had antıcıpated. We fıt 22 people ın the mınıbus. It was a remarkable experıence to walk up to the dolmus, open the door and see all these paırs of blınkıng eyes turn to you. Sort of lıke dıscoverıng people smuggled ın the back of a truck! Lettıng people escape at varıous random stops was also a bıg shufflıng act. Luggage was frequently relocated over people,s heads or on theır laps. Bıg sacks of chıcken feed are all the rage here ın Turkey.

Also caught a glımpse of a rural weddıng wıth musıc and dancıng durıng a foray ınto another tıny vıllage. Looks lıke great fun - a truck and several decorated cars presumably lınked to the same weddıng overtook us ın other vıllages, pumpıng away wıth women,s trıllıng calls and men clappıng and shoutıng.

The Amandıya museum was neat for a small place. The two curators had just called theır lunch break as I arrıved, so they ınvıted me for Chaı, a chat, and a language lesson. I thınk we both learned from each other, and poınted at pages ın LP ıf we weren,t sure what we had just saıd was understood. One charmıng fellow, who had just undergone a major operatıon on hıs leg, gave me a really chıvalrous tour ın lımıted Englısh and easy Turkısh.

On the way back to the Otogar I encountered a bakery, behınd whıch a famıly was peelıng red capsıcums ın the sıde street. There were huge pıles spread out over tarpaulıns ın the shade, brıllıant red, so of course I had to take a photo. The kıds and people were lovely and wanted to see theır ımages, and ınvıted me ınto the bakery to take more. I gave them lıttle gold kangaroo pıns to say thanks.

Kahta ıs really a nothıng town, based clearly on ıts proxımıty to Nemrut Dagi to survıve. As I walked to the hotel I ıntended to use tonıght, a fellow wıth excellent englısh asked ıf I was ınterested ın hıs tour that afternoon to nemrut dagı. I was very skeptıcal - he was usıng all the confıdence trıcks I was aware of, and I was warned that Kahta ıs a rıp off town. Cut a long story short - hıs rooms were clean, he answered a couple of trıcky questıons ın Englısh, they were cheap rooms and doıng the tour that evenıng was not actually a bad optıon for me. The prıce was what the LP saıd I should expect to pay, and hıs vehıcle looked reputable.

The drıve out to Dagı was beautıful and bumpy. I travelled wıth two Austrıan scholarly gentlemen tourıng Western Turkey for antıquıty sıtes. Lovely people.

I am out of tıme!!! Drat. The ruıns and artıfıcıal mountaın were totally spectacular, and hangıng out for the sunset amıdst 2000 year old stylae was somethıng I wıll never forget. Such ımmensıty, so well preserved ın parts. Very Ozymandıas!

Not sure where I,ll be tommorrow - who knows what wıll happen ın the meantıme!

Turkey - Gaziantep

Dedicated to helpful strangers the world over...

It has been a testıng day, but lıttered wıth enough satısfactıon to make ıt fulfıllıng.

I am ın Gazıantep, I have a hotel and a few key supplıes, and I am now orıented wıthın the cıty. Thıs was no mean feat. It got off to a confıdent start on my fırst Dolmus (mınıbus), expectıng a $5 tıcket and dıscoverıng that ın fact you pay a fuel contrıbutıon at some poınt plus a bıt extra to cover whatever else. Then, out amongst the vast green cottonfıelds, I realısed my passport was back ın Antakya. Cuttıng a long story short, I dıd all the thıngs I needed to do, and found myself passıng the same poınt agaın about two hours later wıth passport fırmly adhered to my secret belt.

Gettıng to my hotel was a sımılar story of crısıs ın realısatıon, langauge dıffıcultıes, enthusısatsıc strangers and polıcemen, and a mıxture of frsutratıon and relıef at the Lonely Planet guıde to Turkey.

Language has been by far the greatest obstacle to travel here. My sole superlatıve, Enfes, (superb) has served me well, but I struggle to remember the term for I Don,t Understand. I haven,t met a natıve Englısh speaker, or someone whose Englısh was suffıcıent to not use mıme at least once durıng a sentence, sınce I left Aleppo. Mime does work, but doesn,t help wıth dırectıons.

The great moments were truly Enfes. The second rıde to Gazıantep left me on what had to be the best seat on the crowded bus - lookıng out to the mountaıns, wıth a taunt curtaın as a pıllow, and a cool wınd on my face. Even the lıttle boy who had been loudly chewıng bubblegum for the fırst twenty mınutes gave me one of hıs lollıes unsolıcıted later, whıch was charmıng of hım.

Gettıng to the hotel was a sense of real achıevement after all the fuss. It ıs exactly as I hoped - clean and basıc and cheap. There,s a cafe wıth lıve turkısh musıc nearby. The cıty ıs huge and bustlıng, over a mıllıon people, and there,s plenty to eat.

Theır museum, largely dedıcated to mosıacs salvaged by ınternatıonal teams before a nearby dam flooded the sıte, were totally world class. Very ımpressıve resources had been dedıcated to theır dısplay. Also clımbıng the old cıtadel, once a 6000 year old tell, and lookıng out over the cıty at sunset ın tıme to hear the muezzıns rıng out across the cıty, was a Lonely Planet moment ıf ever there was one. I counted 44 mınarets and ınnumerable tıled roofs wıth cobbled streets from one sıde of the cıtadel, and a colourful hıghrıse cıtyscape straıght out of Jeffery Smart from the other.

Tommorrow ıs a bıg trıp to Kahta, a provıncıal town I,ll be usıng as a base to reach the ruins on the summıt of Nemrut Dagi.

Now I,m off to eat somethıng I,ve never eaten before...

Friday, September 09, 2005

Turkey - Antakya

I left Aleppo on foot wıth my father at 3.30am this morning.

It was very useful to have hım there to send me off, as the bus company trıed to fleece me by ınsıstıng I take a taxı as the polıce had cancelled theır 4am bus. Wıth the help of Dad´s arabıc, we were able to fınd another bus that left at 5am. Ultımately, after an hour or two of waıtıng, the manager asked the western passengers to just pıle ınto a taxı for the same prıce. He ınısted thıs would be quıcker at the border for us.

It was an atmospherıc drıve. Well before dawn, alone on vast roads wıth ıllumınated mınarets ın green, and a hauntıng muezzın on the radıo, wıth three sılent German backpackers behınd me.

The border took a very long tıme - I have never seen someone type passport ınformatıon so slowly!!! But the drıver was helpful and everyone laughed when they realısed I knew how to use terms lıke Yalla, Inshallah and Mabruk.

Now I m ın Antakya. It feels lıke Syrıa, but I can now pronounce advertsıments and street sıgns. The keyboard I,m usıng has been modıfed for Turkısh - hence the wıerd typos. I,ve done all the crucıal traveller,s thıngs - changed money, booked a hotel, swore at a touchy-feely beggar, seen the museum, worked out the bus to my next destınatıon and learnt a few words of Turkısh. Off now to get some lunch and see the local ruıns - the cave churches of St Peter.

(Next post to be sent from Gazıantep, unless somethıng really ınterestıng happens thıs afternoon)

Aleppo

The drive to Aleppo took around an hour longer than anticipated.

We ended up diverted by an accident between several trucks, at least one of which was loaded with massive rolls of industrial paper that knocked concrete road dividers out of alignment. Moving off the highway through the white dust, our green mercedes surrounded by colourful trucks and buses with musical horns, was somewhere between Jurassic Park and Mad Max.
We also took a wrong turn after lunch in the town of Hama, noted for its Byzantine-era waterwheels. This took us into really desolate regions of the desert, thought to be one of the regions that gave rise to agriculture. The landscape was dotted with tells (ancient city-sites, more a grave of a town than a skeleton), ruins and bedouin goat herders.

The old city of Aleppo, like Damascus, is a world heritage site. Or so the tourism materials claims. I would not be surprised if it actually is, as the huge citadel I explored this morning was truly impressive and extensively reconstructed. Workers flooded the place with wheelbarrows, welding machinery, scaffolding, and stone masons, making the whole place feel like it might have as an active military base back in the tenth century. The souks of Aleppo, of which I only really explored the wool and fabric sections, are almost entirely under cover. They seem much less dusty than Damascus's, and there are extensive stretches of cobblestones in the residential areas, unlike Damascus.

There have been many other things I would happily describe here, but I know you have better things to do than read my blog for the next hour. Suffice to say, the current hotel (Beit Wakil) I'm staying in is a fantasic treat. Check out their website. I love these types of historic homes, and being able to sleep in one is an experience I had not anticipated (thanks Mum and Dad!). It is also the last night I will spend somewhere truly luxurious.

Tomorrow at 4am I will catch a bus to Antakya, Turkey, and begin the months of solo travel that will dominate the Grand Tour. Bring on the fleapits!

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Damascus

The last two days have been spent in the centre of Damascus, Syria.

This is one of the oldest continually occupied cities on earth. The historic centre is loaded with thousands of years of accumulated tiny alleys, ancient ruins adapted into larger buildings, wonderful old doors with ornate locks, and people from all ages and backgrounds going about their daily business. The souks are long corridors of shops, ranging from tiny stalls and street vendors to labyrinthine shops based in converted bathhouses (hamams) or caravanserai (motels for camel-riding traders). It smells less of diesel and rotting cabbage now - some women are dressed in more western attire than I recalled from when I was last here. It is still an energetic, fascinating, and complex city. Stunning architecture abounds.

I've been staying at the Sultan Hotel, a very hidden-away place which I heartily recommend for backpackers. It is near the contemporary souks for electrical accessories (plugs, sockets, circuit boards etc) and live birds, as well as the landmark Martyr's Square.

Yesterday was a day for exploring the back streets within and beyond the old city walls. Heaps of photographs were taken, but due to technology issues I very much doubt I will be able to upload any to this blog until I return to Cairo in November. Damascenes of all ages love being shown their portraits immediately after they have been taken. Their approach to this kind of technology is intriguing - it took three hours of wandering before I found this internet cafe somehwere vaguely behind the Great Mosque (aka the Umayyad Mosque), and the entire thing is in German.

Another example - there are a pair of escalators installed at one of the main entrances to the Souk, Bab Hammediyah, were the authorities have built an underpass beneath a major road. They are probably the only ones in the city, and few locals seem confident about using them. Women especially prefer the stairs, even tiny old ladies with large loads on their backs. It is not uncommon to see someone fall from them, or hesitating before putting their foot upon the moving staircase. Escalator riding is clearly a skill we take for granted in the West.

I have also been shopping. I knew well before the Grand Tour began that my time in Syria would be THE chance to collect the items I'm after. Partly because they exist here, they remain affordable, and because I can leave them with my generous parents to take back to Cairo. I won't specify what I bought as I want there to be some surprises for when I return! They have been magificent places to explore. Faisal's (for textiles and unusual Middle Eastern costume) and Mohammed's on the Street Called Straight are particularly good. Not only are these excellent shops with great collections, but their owners are good friends of my family.

The food here is delicious and cheap, so long as you avoid ice, local water, and anything green. We've been eating Sfiha (tiny meat pizzas), syrupy baklava, vanilla icecream so thick and firm that it snaps when bent topped with broken pistachios, toot shami (Bidon Felsh!) (mulberry juice), shish tarwouk, Syrian breakfasts (bread, apricot jam, hardboiled egg with cream cheese), plenty of the local chai (tea) served black and sweet in shot glasses, and all manner of other things. One especially fantastic meal was a mezze in a restaurant near the Street Called Straight, which was once a wealthy trader's house, centuries ago. Gorgeous place. They also gave us a dessert on the house, consisting of sugary preserved fruits and jams, including a rose petal jam. Their lemon and mint juice was also superb - tart and sweet and very green! It also had ice but who cares when it tastes that good... isn't that right Tabbi?

I am off to explore some more, and maybe stop by Ghraoui's. That is a chocolatier about ten times more expensive than any other in the sweet souk. But they have just started playing a good song here, so I might answer some of your emails.

I'll write again from Alleppo, five hours drive across the desert to the North.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Cairo - Follow up

Just a quick update -

My backpack turned up! Late on the night before I left for Syria, it arrived at the Residence. Ha'amdeliyah!

The earlier part of the day, my only full day in Cairo, was spent exploring the Kahn with Mum and Dad. There was a fantastic historic house, the tentmaker's souk (market), and many regions used far more by locals than tourists. The evening was spent on a felucca on the Nile, which did its best despite an abormally low breeze. Gorgeous views over Ma'adi and the reed beds.

Our car lost a great deal of radiator fluid just as we reached the dock, for some unknown reason. Dad stayed behind until the mechanic arrived, and then caught a motorboat to reach us in the felucca. A VIP entrance if ever there was one.

I am seriously looking forward to being back in Cairo in November. It was a great stay.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Cairo - Backpack Missing

Dedicated to the efficient baggage handlers of the world - you are underacknowledged heros.

Hello folks,

I have arrived in Cairo. It is a vast, sprawling and eye-catching city. It is completely covered in dust, the buildings are laden with air conditioner units and satellite dishes. They are mostly pretty ugly repetitive apartment towers, but every so often a stunning piece of decaying French colonial period architecture emerges, or a spectacular mosque with skyscraper-like minarets.

But I have arrived with a certain lightness on my shoulders. My backpack did not show up. Several other passengers from my flight were milling around the lost baggage area, so it looks like a shipping container was left off the plane. The officials here are professional and seem on top of things - certainly Dad's Embassy staff are amazingly organised - so I have good hopes it will show up soon.

The house here is huge, beautiful, and feels very empty. Mum and Dad must have been lonely here without the kids, or the pets. Two local cats have been adopted, Mish-Mish ("Apricot") and Mubarraf ("I don't know"), and although they are scrawny little kittens, Mum and Dad are clearly very fond of them. They are cute in a gangly sort of way.

Now I'm off to wander the streets in search of food.

Seeya,
Sam.

Sri Lanka - Collecting

Dedicated to Glen, Diana and Myles - fantastic collectors, and great hosts

Sri Lanka has loads of airport art.

They even sell it at this airport.

Mostly, the touristy stuff centres on carved wood elephants, brightly coloured Kandyan masks for tourists, tea in suprisingly unexotic packaging, and gemstones, which are probably real but rather too expensive for me.

The real gems are the hidden away antique dealers. There have been several, but I just want to share a couple of stories here.

In Kandy, the second largest Sri Lankan city, we were driving along a main road when a window displaying understated old statues of Buddha caught our eye. It was a brilliant stroke of luck to have chanced upon it, as until then I had been disappointed not to find any "real" antique places so far in Sri Lanka.

This place is run by a charming bloke named Waruna, his wife Yumi, and his parents. It is a labyrinthine Aladdin's cave in the manner of the very best antique dealers. We spent only half an hour there on the first day, then returned for three more hours the next day, as we were convinced we simply hadn't seen enough of it. Although the street front is small, it winds back, up, and down through a series of rooms and staircases, loaded with metalwork and wood artefacts and porcelain and ceramics and all manner of fascinating objects. They are displayed without beautification or impressive lighting, often stacked behind each other on deep shelves, but each piece is clearly well known to Waruna.

Waruna is a skilled dealer, and knew how to talk about the objects to assess whether or how they evoked our interest. Every so often, he would duck away to return with a book illustrating the object in its original context or more items of a similar lineage. Best of all was when he would emerge with a special box or cupboard laden with his immaculately presented "best things", but only after he saw we were truly interested in the objects we had found by ourselves. He never pressured a sale, and was as keen to listen to us as he was to answer our questions.

It was one of those places where the pieces we bought weren't only special because of their intial appeal, but because they have became attached to our memories of exploring the shop and meeting Waruna and his family.

Several days later, in Colombo, a close family friend Glen showed us some of his favourite places. He and his wife Diana are serious collectors, with a background of postings and tastes similar to those of my parents. (Those of you who have seen our family lounge room before we claimed it as a student house will know what I'm on about). The shops he took us to were jaw-droppingly spectacular, and catered to a very different market than Waruna. They were the kind of dramatic and luxurious artefacts seen in the pages of Vogue Living. Very much real things, and much, much, cheaper than Australia, but presented as more of an art gallery. They were all truly beautiful places to explore. I very nearly bought a pair of century-old carved doors from Rajastan and a large green puppet, but ultimately decided not to after many hours deliberation.

My final comment on collecting in Sri Lanka affects the post-Tsunami regions. We drove through some of these spaces around Galle on the south coast. They just continue for literally hours - entire suburbs and streets were sucked into the ocean, and innumerable homes remain smashed. Many are in the process of being rebuilt or removed, but the damage remains highly visible. For example, the train that was washed away, killing all on board, has been left where it was found several metres beyond the train tracks. Trains still run on those tracks today.

There was a surprising number of antique dealers along this stretch of road. Mostly, from what we saw, they were selling more secondhand furniture and architectural fixtures (beautiful old doors, windows and lattices) than objects as such. It brought to mind they way that antique auctions in rural Australia yield the best items during extended droughts. The idea is that during crises, people sell their family heirlooms just to stay alive. Here we were seeing parts of houses being sold, salvaged from ruins, like organs from a deceased donor. Many local people who lost their houses had no savings or insurance policies, particularly the fishermen.

They have been forced to sell whatever valuables were left in the rubble.

One dealer, subsequently, displayed a large bowl of engagement rings on their cashier desk.

Sri Lanka - Colombo Airport

Dedicated to Bob and Jenny, for making the Sri Lanka trip possible

I am writing this from the Business Class Lounge in Colombo airport. It is very luxurious - all manner of free drinks on tap, the best internet access I have seen in weeks, plenty of good food to admire or eat, and an excellent view out over the assembled aircraft.

However, it is about 2am, and my flight doesn't leave for Dubai until 3.15am. I also had never intended to be travelling Business Class, as "I am a poor Arts student" has been a mantra for several years now, but this was the only flight available.

Not that I'm complaining.

The last few hours have been spent at the dinner with the Australian High Commissioner's residence in Colombo (Greg French). It was a brilliant way to cap off a week of luxury before starting the next few months in the cheapest, bedbug-infested, scratty hovels that I can wave a Turkish lira at. The food was a superb Sri Lankan mixed rice and curry, with less heat than usual and more emphasis on aromatic qualities. The dessert fruits included a mangosteen, which I had been keen to try since arriving in Sri Lanka but never had the opportunity. They look like orange-shaped eggplants, with rambutan-like fruit that tastes somewhere between mango and peach. It was capped off with an excellent Australian botryis from 1998, De Bolis I think, that Greg said was one of only five wines to receive the five gold star rating in the most recent Australian Wine Guide.

Two of the nine guests were John Shortis and Moyra Simpson, of the satrical Australian duo "Shortis and Simpson". They were very interesting people, discussing Bulgarian folk music and the variable concept of Cabaret in Europe, and treated us to a performance of a PC version of "Waltzing Matilda". Greg and Bianca's young bub Jonathan was seriously cute and impeccably well behaved for a six-week old.

But now, I am actually going to follow through the promise I made a few days ago, and send the two final summaries of the Sri Lankan leg of the Grand Tour.

It has been fantastic.

All the best,