Sunday, December 30, 2007

Neomi's Granola recipe

2 or 3 tablespoons of oil
100 gm broken nuts (pecan and walnut are ideal)
100 gm sunflower seeds
100 gm pumpkin seeds
50 gm sesame seeds
50 gm linseed
500 gm oats
200 gm wheatgerm
50 gm bran
5 tablespoons honey
100 gm raisins
50 gm crushed dried coconut
dried fruit to taste

Line a shallow baking pan with a baking sheet and pour on oil. Mix in nuts and seeds. Roast in a medium oven for about 15 minutes - don't over do it.
Then mix in oats, wheatgerm and bran and return to oven for 15 minutes - toss/stir occasionally.
Remove and pour on honey, return to oven for 2 to 3 minutes for honey to warm
Remove and mix in honey. Add fruit and coconut cold.

It might be some time before I taste cereal as good as this again.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

It's very complicated

We're off to meet Neomi and Uri who live in a small place called Klil in the north west of Israel. We met them in the Kackar mountains of Turkey in the summer and they had given us an invite to stay with them. We take a bus to Tel Aviv and hop onto a train going north up the coast. The public transport is heavily used - both bus and train are full. There are a lot of youngsters in uniform, some with guns. It's hard to get used to seeing them. Uri meets us at the station and drives us back to their house in the countryside - set amongst olive groves with a view of the sea in the distance. We are put up in one of their comfortable chalets. (They run a guesthouse with two chalets and a yurt.) Neomi has prepared a wondeful meal, the first of many, with home-grown vegetables. We talk a lot. I mean a lot. We talk all afternoon. Of course we want to hear what it's like to live here, to live the Good Life out of the rat race, to live in a country overshadowed by the conflict with the Palestinians, to live in a country made up of such a mixture of peoples and opinions, to live in a pretty valley within rocket-range of Hezbollah. Neomi explains many things to us in a careful and thoughtful way and Uri adds acerbic and witty comments. They are trying to give us a balanced but honest account of things. Later we meet their eldest son who has just finished his national service - two years community service and two years of guard duty, checkpoints, observation posts etc. He's an intelligent and sensitive young man who has experienced and seen things first hand and he's obviously happy to have completed his duty.

The next day we are given the "Zionist Tour" (as opposed to the "Religious Tour") of northern Galilee and around the Sea of Galilee. We visit Rosh Pinna, one of the oldest settlements of the zionists who began returning here at the end of the 19th century. A quick detour across the River Jordan and around the foothills of the Golan Heights and down to the first kibbutz, set up by intellectuals and idealists from Russia before the Revolution, who were determined to work the land and produce something with their labours. As one poet put it "We wrote with our spade and painted the earth". This kibbutz eventually split into two over support for Stalin. The kibbutzim have drifted away from the early socialist days, and are now more like mini-production units. They still have schools, communal dining, housing, shops and sometimes medical facilities, but there are also now Thai immigrant farm workers too. Our interesting day ends at wonderful hot springs several metres below sea-level on the border with Jordan - we are on the great African/Syrian divide here.

Christmas Day is spent out on the coast at Acre - the Crusader's port. The old town can't match the hyperbole of our guidebook, but we have a pleasant day meandering around and also ring our families at home - which leaves us with mixed feelings. At first we can't get a phone card to work, and a man stops and offers us his mobile to ring the UK with the phonebox number. We catch a bus back up the coast and Neomi kindly comes to pick us up. We wait at a road junction. There are lots of people hitch-hiking on their way home, some with ready-made cards with their destinations. It seems refreshingly normal. We have another leisurely day in Klil ending with a beach walk up by the Lebanese border, before we say goodbye to Uri and Neomi and their family. It feels like we might have been asking them questions ever since we arrived, and we are offered stories and opinions aplenty in reply. Inevitably, whenever we talk about the situation here, the phrase "it's very complicated" crops up. No surprise really. We head back to Jerusalem via Tel Aviv and visit the holocaust museum in the capital. It's a depressing story that bears retelling and gives plenty of clues to the current national psyche - although there's clearly more than one at work here. The next day we visit the Dome of the Rock - a lovely building and, as they say, it's in a great location.........

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Jerusalem and the little town of Bethlehem

We like Jerusalem. Our first view of it as we came out of a tunnel from the border, is of the Dome of the Rock glinting in the setting sun. It's spread over many hills, and there are trees all around. The Old City is a warren of narrow streets that can suddenly open up onto views across the rooftops, and there's plenty to see. On Friday we got caught up in the crowds on the way to morning prayers at the main mosque which sits on Temple Mount, next to the Dome. Mainly men and boys, all rushing up the hill and through the cemetery by the city gate, reminding me of going to a football match. There was a big crowd as it was the end of Eid - a bit like a Boxing Day game. The Rock is where Abraham is said to have brought Isaac to sacrifice, and it is the third holiest site for Muslims and the most holy for Jews. In the afternoon we walked along the Via Dolorosa, the route that Jesus is said to have carried his cross to his crucifixion. The route ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Here we observed Christian pilgrims, mainly Russian, lighting candles, putting hands through holes to touch a rock, and numerous other rituals, all caught on camera by friends or relatives. The large building is divided up between different denominations - Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Coptic etc. and since they often have disputes about the upkeep, the caretaker is a Muslim. It was a dark miserable place and I still don't know what a sepulchre is. It must be a tomb. Our day ended at the Western Wall, the Wailing Wall, which is the only accessible remaining part of the temple built by the Jews (the Romans destroyed it, and now the Dome stands in its place). There was a good crowd, all dressed up, including the orthodox Hasidim in various funky headgear (fedoras or furry Licorice All Sorts style) and along with a bit of wailing there was singing and okey-cokey to usher in the Shabat. You have to pass through a metal detector before you can enter the plaza in front of the wall, and like other parts of the city we noticed youngsters, not always in uniform, carrying semi-automatic guns casually slung over their shoulders. It's a conservative city, so chow that night meant shwarma in a cafe in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian side of town. Thank goodness for multi-culturalism...........

A brief history: Everybody who was anybody in these parts has been here - beginning with the Israelites and Philistines (therein lies a tale), followed by Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Byzantines,Arabs, Seljuk Turks, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans (still flogging their furniture, I dare say) and ending with the British before they bailed out. In 1948 Jordan took control of the Old City and in 1967 Israel seized it from them.

The city is in very good nick, despite the history, and a delight to wander around after the crushed streets of Amman and Damascus, although in the souk you still have to shove a bit. On one day we took a minibus to Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank. We were dropped at the crossing point in the new 8 metre-high wall. It twists and turns up and down hills and around clusters of houses and on the Palestinian side has attracted a lot of graffiti. In fact, the wall has become a bit of a tourist attraction. Bethlehem felt like a nondescript little town to me, and the Church of Nativity another sad scruffy place. The streets were lively though with shoppers and Christmas decorations. Across the valley, on the other side of the wall, we could see a modern settlement perched on a small hill, like an old citadel. On our way back through the wall we had to queue to pass through the checkpoint. The buildings had the feel of a border crossing, which one day it may be. After 45 minutes, we reached the metal detector and could see the guard in his booth who had been shouting instructions through the tannoy. We watched as a little girl went back and forth through the detector, with less items of clothing each time, until the device stopped beeping. Her mother couldn't help her because she was on the wrong side. The guard waved us through when he saw our passports. There was then a secondary documents check and a device on which the local Palestinians had to place their right palm. This was a two-way barrier, so we took it in turns with people coming the other way. It was an eye-opening experience, but one that the locals seemed wearily resigned to.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Stamp and the Security Check

The problem:
We're off to Israel, Jerusalem to be precise, and then to meet friends we made in Turkey. But we have a problem. Our journey along the Silk Road will take us through Iran, and you cannot get a visa for Iran with an Israeli stamp in your passport.

The theory:
So, like many other travellers, we have to leave Jordan at the King Hussein/General Allenby bridge across the Jordan river and enter Israel through the West Bank. We then have to ask the immigration officers not to put either exit or entry stamps in our passports, but on a separate piece of paper. We also have to leave by the same route and repeat the process in reverse order, within 14 days.

The reality:
8.45am A shared taxi gets us to the Jordan border post in good time.
9.45am We are still waiting to buy an exit stamp from an official who is not where he should be
10.15am We have our exit stamp on a piece of paper and board the service bus to take us to the Israeli border post.
11am Waiting for service bus to fill up
11.15am The bus is full. We are now waiting for a border guard to check everyone has an exit stamp
11.45am Arrive at the Israeli border post where we wait to hand over our backpacks to baggage handlers.
12.05pm We wait to pass through a metal detector and then a Star Trek transformer device that blows air under our clothes. Oooooh.
12.30pm Queue to present our passports to Israeli immigration officers who are all female soldiers, and the one in front of us is shouting at someone so we change queue.
12.45pm We present our passports together and ask for an entry stamp on a separate piece of paper. After giving an explanation for the reason, the soldier indicates that this is okay, and then asks a few questions. I get my passport back, but Gayle is asked further questions. She blanks when she is asked for her paternal grandfather's first name.
1.10pm After several more questions, Gayle is asked to take a seat while they process a security check based on the questions they have asked.
2.30pm Gayle is called by a police officer who has her papers. Which hotel is she staying in Jerusalem? The Citadel. What is the full name of the hotel? The Citadel Hostel. That is a hostel, not a hotel, she is informed, before being asked to return to her seat.
3pm Chatting with many other travellers who have all visited Lebanon and Syria too.
3.40pm Gayle is called again and presented with her passport and separate entry stamp and an apology for the delay.
3.55pm Board minibus to Jerusalem and wait for it to fill up
4.35pm Arrive.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Eid in Amman

Our plan was to travel from Amman to Jerusalem today to avoid Eid al-Adha but it has come a day sooner than we expected and there is no public transport. So we have an enforced rest day with little to do but read and chat with other travellers and wander the empty streets of Amman. It's not the most picturesque of cities - the Salford of the Middle East I guess. It has grown quickly from a village under Ottoman rule to a capital city of just under 2 million people - most of them immigrants from neighbouring countries. I didn't actually realise that the Palestinians outnumber Jordanians 2 to 1, and there are large numbers of Iraqis who have moved here to escape the conflict at home. There is no sense of a large city, partly because it is spread over many low hills and valleys and there are only short views. West of the city are the hills overlooking the Jordan valley and east is the desert stretching to Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

We head out this way to visit a handful of buildings - forts, a caravanserai and two hammans. Yes, hammans in the desert. These were built by the first Islamic rulers in the 7th century - beside deep wells. It is thought they were used by the wealthy as hunting lodges, or by pilgrims on route to Mecca, and one features risque frescoes - not for the Faithful. One fort had been used by T.E.Lawrence during the Arab revolt against the Turks. I'm reading his 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom' at the moment but haven't got past the introduction........... We pass several new 'forts' - American military bases for Iraq. No photographs, no stops.

desert hamman

Jerash is just north of Amman and is an impressive site of Roman remains. There are temples, churches, baths, a forum and agora, a hippodrome and more columns than you can shake a stick at. We take a minibus with Harry, a young New Zealander and criss-cross the sight in the warm winter sun. To demonstrate the acoustics of the amphiteatre we are treated to 'Scotland The Brave' on bagpipes played by a soldier in bedouin uniform - looking the part in long skirt and red and white keffiyeh. Quite bizarre. Gayle is keeping a tally of Roman amphitheatres we have visited - this is number 9 and in good nick. On our way back into Amman we pass several makeshift pens at the roadside full of sheep for sale. A man is trying to shut the boot of his car on a purchase. Eid al-Adha commemorates Allah/God saving Ibrahim/Abraham from sacrificing his son Ishmael/Isaac. The father slaughtered a lamb instead, and the carnage is to be repeated at Eid. We will be celebrating at Hashem's Restaurant - with felafel, houmous and foul and a glass of tea. Yummm.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Familiar places, familiar faces

"Beirut?" " Damascus?" "Beirut?" " Damascus?" "Beirut?" " Damascus?"
We are standing at a junction on the main road between guess where and surrounded by taxi drivers. We shuffle sideways in the direction of a traffic cop to seek his advice about passing buses. Our new-found friends accompany us. The policeman's advice is to take a taxi. We have just enough Lebanese Pounds to get us a shared ride in a huge old Chevrolet. We are joined by a young Palestinian student and an old woman with her grandson. The ride across the border is quick and uneventful and we are able to buy a new Syrian visa without any rigmarole. Damascus is noisy and busy as usual and we barge our way along the crowded pavements back to our old hotel. We end up in the same room and after unpacking it's almost as if we hadn't been away.

Out on the streets we meet James, the Englishman we had travelled with to Palmyra, and another English fella who is driving a Landrover around the Mediterranean with his wife and baby. We had met them in Hama. Suddenly Damascus, a city of 6 million, seems a small place. There's the whiff of coffee and cardamon, and the sweet smell of nargile pipes (hubble bubbles), from the open cafes. The souks are busy as if everyone is trying to do their last-minute Christmas shopping, even though they aren't - Eid begins on the 20th December. James is off to the Ummayyad Mosque in the centre of the old city and we recommend he checks out the tomb for one of the many heads of John the Baptist (apparently there are a few around). When we visited there had been many people going to say their prayers and kiss the glass enclosure, which had had money pushed inside it through the cracks........

The next day we wake early. Our plan is to visit ruins at Bosra in the south with James, but Gayle gets an early morning call from her bowels, and feels so rotten that she spends the day in bed with her books instead. James and I take the bus in the rain. Bosra was capital of the Roman province of Arabia and has a well-preserved theatre because the Ummayyads built a fortress around and on top of it. The rest of the town has also been covered over the centuries and now there is a slow process of recovery going on. There is a new town and people have been relocated so that houses can be pulled down and excavations to take place. The whole of ancient Bosra is built from black basalt - quite striking in the desert. Luckily we have some sun but unluckily all the buses back to Damascus are full. We have to find a microbus but it's Friday and there's not a lot happening. Rain clouds darken the sky and time ticks on. Finally we try hitching and manage to get three lifts in relatively quick succession along the road to the next main town. As we climb out of the last car we see a bus heading our way and flag it down. It's going to Damascus and there are two seats left. Phew. In the evening we go to a hamman for a steam clean, scrub and massage. It's men only - but Gayle is happy tucked up in bed. The hamman is a small clean 12th century bathhouse that has been wonderfully restored. It's busy but well organised and very relaxing after a long day.

We visit the National Museum on our last day in Damascus. It's possibly one of the most depressing we have been in, despite having a good collection of exhibits. There is a reconstructed 3rd century synagogue from the Euphrates full of frescoes. It is locked and we have to ask the attendant for the key. Past a Do Not Enter sign we take the stairs to a reconstructed morgue-like underground tomb from Palmyra featuring a collection of carved portraits of the interned. A handsome bunch they were too. In a dim room of glass display cases were pieces of Chinese-embroidered silk which had all also been recovered from 1st century Palmyra tombs. They were small and tatty but it gave us a thrill to think that we haven't strayed too far from the Silk Road after all.

Phlp, phlp, phlp, phlp, phlp
"Is that your stomach, John?"
Phlp, phlp, phlp, phlp, phlp
"Is that your stomach?"
"No, it's their nargileh pipe."
Phlp, phlp, phlp, phlp, phlp, phlp, phlp, phlp, phlp, phlp.............

Bosra local

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Souk to souk

"Hungry? What do you fancy?"
"Maybe a falafel wrap"
"Mmm, I was thinking about a chicken shwarma."
"How about a falafel and chicken shwarma?"
"Or I might just have some houmous with falafel."
"We could get a shwarma each and share a houmous?"
"I think I'd prefer just houmous"
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. No, wait, I'll just have a falafel wrap"
"Ooh look, they've got kibbeh and coleslaw over there......."

Despite being famous for its quality restaurants, especially in Beirut, our diet in Lebanon has tended to be based on the standard cheap eats on the street. There are plenty of hole-in-the-wall places serving fresh food - but not so handy if it's pouring with rain, which it seems to have done every day except one since we arrived here. We have been desperately looking for a bakery like the one we found in the Damascus souq - another hole-in-the-wall with a mob around the window all crowding round for fresh croissants filled with chocolate that were disappearing like... well, like hot cakes I suppose. They were justifiably in demand and we have been keeping our eyes peeled for more. Other bakeries seem to specialise in savouries like mini-pizzas, spinach pasties, thyme and olive oil bread, etc. The joy of eating food like this is a combination of several factors. It's cheap - and so are we. It's fast - no hanging around for some kitchen wallah to marinade the mutton. It's fresh - this stuff is chopped, mixed, fried, grilled, wrapped in front of you, you can even see if the man preparing the food has dirt under his fingernails (most likely, but so what?).
Holiday Inn, Beirut
We have been up the coast to Tripoli, doubling back through Beirut. The coastal journey was sleep-inducing. It is built up and scruffy. Lebanon is the most crowded country in the Middle East, with a population of about 4.5 million plus up to half a million Palestinian refugees. We read that there are an estimated 10 million Lebanese now living abroad. There are plenty of Western Union offices around, so there must be money being sent home to families here. We've also been told that there are many Syrians also living here - they moved here whilst Lebanon was "occupied by Syria". We have wandered the souqs in Tripoli - now a regular pastime with us. They are always crowded and busy and alive and very entertaining - although it could be argued we are easily pleased. I hope we don't lose the thrill of people watching. I'm sure there will be plenty more markets on our journey. Here people call out "Welcome!" every fifty yards or so. Young men, who in England would be wearing shaved heads and hoods and probably only offering a series of adjectives to the foreign visitor, come up and ask us how we are liking Lebanon ("very much, thank you"), where we are from ("England, near Manchester") and why we are here ("er... we're on holiday") before finishing with a Welcome to Lebanon. These conversations are repetitive but invariably cheering. We found an internet cafe here run by women and where women pay half price. Instead of the usual noisy pubescent males of all ages playing wargames it's busy but quiet.......

From Triploi we took day trips into the mountains and along the coast to Byblos. The countryside is dramatic - rising sharply from the coast up into snow-capped ridges. However, it's covered in concrete buildings in various states of construction and habitation and is simply spoiled. Our day in Byblos was far more satisfying - better weather helped. It is one of the ancient Phoenician cities, and there are a heap of corresponding ruins on a hill above the old harbour. There's been a settlement here for 7000 years so the archaeologists have had a good run for their money. Apart from knocking out cedar trees to all and sundry, the locals also came up with a linear alphabet and invented glass blowing. The site has a range of finds from neolithic houses, to Roman temples and Byzantine churches, surrounded by Persian, Mamluk and Crusader fortifications.

Our last stop in Lebanon has been a visit to Balbek - which lies in a high valley between two mountain ranges. Here there are remains of a Roman temple complex deicated to Jupiter and Bacchus. The Jupiter temple was enormous - but there's not much left of it these days. However, six enormous columns still stand defiantly. They are the largest in the world, according to our guidebook. Others were shipped off by the Byzantines to use in the building of Aya Sophia in Istanbul. The Bacchus temple is still almost whole, although shorn of much of its decoration. Balbek is in Hezbollah country. Instead of being offered Roman coins being offered to us by touts, some wags were selling Hezbollah t-shirts........

coffee on the streets of Baalbek

In every place we have stayed there are signs of the civil war. The whole country seems to be a building site as reconstruction continues. Old buildings are being restored, souks smartened up, new appartment blocks going up. But the country is also facing its worst political crisis since the end of the war. The main political groups cannot agree on a new president. The last one has just stood down. By an agreement made at independence, the president must be a Christian Maronite. (The prime minister must be muslim, the chief of staff a Druze, etc.) The country is so finely divided that it needs a compromise solution. Mind you, it seems the war has continued on the roads - the driving here is so aggressive and dangerous. We now do not blink when we see someone reversing backwards down the wrong side of a dual carriageway, or someone going round a roundabout the wrong way because it's quicker, or the minibus driver accelerating to squeeze through a gap between two trucks.

Of course, what the country probably needs is women running more than just a few internet cafes.........

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Purple people

The bus stops again. This time it is to let the passengers fill out their entry cards to Lebanon. Then, after coffee and fags are consumed as well, the bus zooms off up the road to the archway indicating Syrian border control. It is cold and bleak. We all pile off the bus, collect our stamps, and pile on board again. The bus zooms up to the Lebanese border control. Here we have to buy a visa. There's a friendly multilingual money exchanger eager to facilitate the transaction. When he smiles you can see the shark teeth. We get our visa stamped and join the Syrians on the bus and begin the slow descent to Beirut. The road twists and turns and diverts around a high bridge that has been neatly bombed by the Israelis during last year's war. There is heavy traffic in both directions. Fortunately our driver is fearless and shows no nerves as he overtakes a truck which is already overtaking another truck, as we approach a blind summit. Gayle reads, oblivious to it all.

Beirut finally comes into view as the road winds down a narrow ridge and we enter the city. We emerge from the bus and try to work out the route to a hotel whilst men invite us to board buses going goodness knows where. A soldier waving an automatic weapon around approaches us and gives us directions in perfect English. Unfortunately we have to cross a road. Now after Damascus our senses are attuned and reflexes primed for such an occurrence, but maybe we are not quite 'match fit'. There is a story that Beirut wishes to host a Formula 1 Grand Prix, but the joke is that they already have it daily on their roads. It is ruthless. We make it to the other side......just.

We are staying in an old neighbourhood by the docks that is full of old French colonial buildings, trendy bars and restaurants. To the west is the rebuilt city centre - stylish buildings with warm stone facades. The streets are empty though and the area around the parliament building is fenced off. Now and again we come across an army personnel carrier parked up on a crossroads. There are soldiers directing traffic at hectic intersections. In the west of the city there are more shops and a couple of universities. The buildings are more modern, usual concrete sprawl. Now and again we spot a survivor from the civil war, shot up and shell-damaged, hiding behind a brand new tower block of appartments. Along the seafront is the corniche - but it's a cloudy day and there are not many people around. We are both surprised by the signs of wealth - the Mercedes, BMWs and 4x4s, the designer clothes shops and expensive restaurants. One evening we go to the cinema and the lobby is full of people chatting away in French, English and Arabic - it feels very European.
We journey south to Sour/Tyre and Saida/Sidon - the two most important Phoenician cities. Sour was the main port from where the Phoenicians sailed. Their boats were made from the famous local cedar trees. Now there are some Roman remains, including a complete hippodrome. The city is close to the Israel border and has suffered in the past. Hezbollah flags fly around the city. There is also a large Palestinian refugee camp here and a big UN presence i.e. lots of shiny white 4x4s with the letters 'UN' on the sides. We stay at a pension in Saida that used to be a convent. When it rains heavily the water comes in through the windows and forms a pool under the beds. The shower is pretty feeble. No wonder the nuns cleared out. The convent is in the middle of the old town souk, built by the Ottomans. A local billionaire has been renovating the buildings in the souk and it's a great place to wander around. Gayle gets chatting to a man who explains that he is a Palestinian whose family moved here in 1948 from Haifa. The Palestinians moved in to the old houses whilst the local Muslims moved into the new town and the Christians went to Beirut. Katia who runs the pension is one of the few remaining Christians. We ask her about the wars, and she explains that people in Lebanon have different enemies depending on where they live. For her, it is the Syrians. She is critical of Hezbollah for provoking the Israeli attack last year. She also explains that before the civil war, nobody was labelled by their religion and now they are. This echoed something we were told in Bosnia.

In Phoenician times, back when the Pharoahs were having it out with the Hittites in Syria, Saida was the centre of the production of purple dye, after which they were named by the Greeks. The dye was extracted from seashells and used to produce purple cloth. The shells were harvested to extinction and all that remains is a small hill beside the old town made up of discarded broken shells. The real tourist highlight is the Soap Museum - explaining the original process of soapmaking from olive oil. The craft continues in some places - Aleppo in Syria is the most famous.

I'm typing this from an internet cafe in a barrel-vaulted room in the old souk - decorated all over in brown paper to look like a cave. Thankfully no-one is smoking......... The power cuts out once a day, as in most of Lebanon, but the cafe has a back-up generator on stand-by. It is still raining outside.............

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Watch out, Bashar's about.

I'm having a chick pea crisis at the moment. We are eating them every day in some form or other but they're wreaking havoc with me. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em, I suppose. We have found a decent internet cafe in Damascus, but although we can post to this site we can't actually look at it ourselves. It would appear that blogspot is a banned website. However, I can still get the footie results and read e-mails. All around Syria there are posters of Bashar the President. There are still plenty of his dad too. It's a strange feeling - he is always looking at you when you walk down the street, when you ride in a minibus, when you eat in a restaurant. Today we met an old communist who reckoned that Bashar is a bigger dictator than his dad was ("He's an optician but he has no vision"). It must be hard for the ex-opthalmist though. In some of the images we have seen he is wearing aviator glasses, a military cap and some stubble - and it just makes me think of George Michael - not quite the Tough Guy image that is intended. And in all our time here we have never felt like we are riding on the 'axis of evil'.

We met the comrade, Riaz, outside a carpet shop in the old city. We were invited in to look, not buy, and he translated for us. He had lived in exile for many years, including a stint in Scarborough, which puts a new slant on the meaning of exile I guess. We liked the carpets a lot - they were all from Iran, and when we explained that we were going that way, Riaz immediately said "Don't buy anything here!", so we just chatted and drank tea and said thank you. The old city is extremely relaxing - lots of narrow streets, and a large souk, and very peaceful compared to the mayhem on the roads in the rest of Damascus - we have almost been flattened twice by minibuses shooting red lights. There is a wonderful old mosque here built by the Umayyads on the site of a Roman temple. The courtyard was once covered in mosaics - but thanks to the mongols, earthquake and fire it is no longer in its full glory. However, it's still impressive. Gayle had to don a gown to enter - as in other mosques - a preparation for Iran.We are also enjoying the street food - lots of pastry shops and bakeries aside from the ubiquitous doner. We also found a wonderful Indian restaurant in the upmarket side of town - what joy.......

We arrived here from Palmyra, Syria's prime tourist attraction, the ruins of a Roman city in the desert. We had travelled there with James, a compatriot who is taking a similar route to us, and who was very good company. The ruins are impressive, spread over a large area, and overlooked by an arabian fortress on a hill. It was misty and cold as we wandered around, but there was plenty of walking so we didn't mind so much. The town itself is a sad place, full of touts and touristy restaurants overcharging for lousy food. We stayed in a cheap and not so cheerful place but it all added to the atmosphere of the place. On the bus journey to Palmyra, we passed a road sign to Baghdad, which felt a bit odd. James has headed on down to the Euphrates whilst we plan to cross into Lebanon for 10 days or so. We were waiting to see the outcome of the presidential election there before deciding to go. Fortunately we are meeting lots of other travellers coming and going which helps to get some up-to-date information.

contemplating the majesty of Palmyra

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Sunny Syria

The sun is shining as we cross the border into Syria. The ride is lively - our minibus driver seems intent on breaking the record for crossing from Antakya to Aleppo - and we cut in between trucks before screeching to a stop at the border. The formalities take only half an hour - so much easier than trying to enter Turkey - and before we can blink our crazy minibus driver has deposited us in Aleppo. It's a big city of about 3 million and the roads are chock full of traffic. Big roads impossible to cross. Narrow streets where taxis tear along at top speed. There are absolutely no women about. We explore the streets and discover the pavement obstacle course - steps, open manholes, broken paving, cars, piles of sand. "Halloo what's your name welcome to our country" is thrown out to us from all about. The streets are busy and eventually we spot a woman - in full black chador, her face completely covered so that it's hard to tell whether she's coming or going. Men are wearing keffiyes, the checked red and white cloths. We are in a new country with new smells and new tastes. Our first meal includes houmous and baba ganoush. Arabic numbers are identified, but no chance with the words. The man in the cafe speaks English so at least we can order food.

Aleppo has a large hectic souk in the old city and on a hill above stands the citadel - a classic medieval fortress surrounded by a moat. This is Crusader country. Once, twice, three times a campaign to seize Jerusalem from its Arab conquerors has left the country dotted with castle complexes. From the Aleppo citadel we can look over the dun-coloured city. Nearly all the buildings are faced in stone, and there are no high rise buildings - it looks miles better than the concrete messes we have been used to in Turkey. Down in the "new city" we roam the narrow shady parts of the Ottoman souk. Here there are hundreds of women out shopping - most, but not all, in black chadors. Despite the public dress code there are plenty of clothes shops selling a mixture of styles. Back in the business quarter it's all men's shoes and suits. In the evening the pavement sellers come out to sell their wares.

Our hotel room is clean, bright and toasty warm - the radiators blasting out welcome heat in the chilly evenings. We can't quite get used to the cost of things - so much cheaper than Turkey with not much difference in quality. Our tea costs us just over two quid and we're stuffed. In the morning we have foul (pronounced fool) for breakfast - big fava beans in warm yoghurt and drizzled with olive oil and cumin - with big mugs of tea. Makes a change from museli. Every now and again we get a whiff of cardamon on the street as we pass a coffee seller. The spice is ground in with the coffee.

After three days we catch a bus southwards to Hama. The two hour bus journey, which would have cost four pounds in Turkey, costs 65 pence. There's no coffee and cake, but water, a sweet and some Syrian comedy show on the TV - women behind us chuckle away gleefully. Hama is a town famed for its huge wooden water wheels that draw water up from the river and feed aqueducts for irrigation. At this time of year the river is too low, although one wheel is turning and groaning. From here we make daytrips out to Apamea - an old Roman city site with a 2km colonnaded high street - and Krak des Chevaliers, one of the best-preserved crusader castles. We visited the castle with James, a young Englishman who is also heading eastwards. The journey there is a bit complicated - we have to take two minibuses and then ask a man in a beat-up old car to take us the last 10km for a quid. He has to stop twice to get water to cool the engine as we climb up to the grand fortress. The castle is huge and built up inside, and I can't help thinking of Monty Python. There are great views across the hills around and to snowy mountains in Lebanon. Our return journey is harder - we end up hitching a lift from a man in a van back to the main highway. Here we are ignored by every passing minibus. It's looking bad until Gayle flags down a small truck. We pile into the cab and James uses the phrasebook to make introductions. There's a crucifix hanging from the rear-view mirror. George the driver is typically very kind and drops us at the minibus station to get back to Hama.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Our last stop in Turkey. It takes us a while to orient ourselves in Antakya - our map is wrong - and then we have some hotel shenanigans, finally going back to one we had looked at first. It's sometimes cold in the evenings so we've been glad of heating. Besides air conditioning this room has the added advantage(?) of a TV - I check the time of the big match and what channel its on. European finals qualification at stake, and all that. Then we head out to get some lunch and wander around the town.
It's a smallish city on the banks of a river, and it's hard to imagine it had a population of half a million in Roman times. As the ancient town of Antioch it was home to one of the earliest christian churches. It also had wealth - the local museum exhibits (in a vague sense of the word) a huge collection of mosaics recovered from ruins nearby- sadly none are complete.
In between rainstorms we take a gander down some of the streets - it's much smarter and tidier than grotty Gaziantep, and not how we imagined it to be. After the First World War the city fell under French control as part of Syria. It then declared itself as an independent republic until Turkey 'absorbed' it in 1938. We thought it woud have a flavour of Syria about it but not a single plate of houmous can we find.
Gayle spots a cinema poster for Atonement and we go to the cinema for the first time in a long while - the film is sub-titled in Turkish, which is fine except for two scenes in French. We are unfazed. Back at the bus depot we have already been speaking French to get details of the bus to Aleppo. The film is okay but lacks the drama and excitement of the footie which is on when we get back to our hotel. And what can I say about the football? Well, Turkey looked a bit nervous but deserved their 1-nil victory over Bosnia Hercegovina. Mmm, wonder how England are doing against Croatia.........

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Night Bus to Urfa

Well, Şanliurfa to be precise, although 'Glorious' Urfa seems somewhat of a misnomer. A bit like saying 'Wonderful Rochdale'. Urfa is one of those scruffy eastern Turkey towns that has an historical air about it and a sewer system to match. We continued our whirlwind flight to Syria by heading here from Konya on a comfortable night bus. We'd met a soldier (presumably an officer -he was reading a book) on the bus who told us what a marvellous cosmopolitan country Turkey is - but then asked us what we thought about the PKK etc. Unfortunately the conversation ended when the bus set off, so we couldn't talk more about it.
The buses are generally excellent, and after each journey has begun the bus "steward" comes down the aisle, first with cheap cologne to wipe your hands with and then tea or coffee and cake. So civillised. There are strict rules: no smoking and no mobile phones - rules that are never broken by the passengers, although it's not an uncommon sight to see your driver lighting a fag with one hand while he talks to someone on his mobile as he's overtaking a slow truck approaching a blind summit. The night bus to Urfa departed at 9.30pm and dropped us off at 7.30am - this far east the sun rises and sets much earlier and we wandered around looking for a hotel - undecided as ever - in bright sunshine. Gayle eventually left me with the rucksacks and roamed around a bit - finally finding a cheap dive built on top of a row of breakfast "salonus". The cheap dives are fine if the shared facilities and beds are clean. Our problem is with the mid-range dives that charge more and offer gloomy rooms with brown curtains and Alice in Wonderland ensuite bathrooms.

Urfa is an ancient city - continuously inhabited for 11,000 years allegedly - and has famous gardens built around two lakes full of carp. These are to commemorate where Ibrahim/Abraham fell when he was plucked from a burning pyre by Allah/God. On a Saturday afternoon the gardens were very busy with families, couples, packs of children, and men who would say hello as they passed by. It was warm and sunny and we snoozed over a tea in one of the tea gardens and watched punters rowing around the lake.
That night Turkey played Norway in their European qualifier and the staff in the restaurant couldn't tear themselves away from the TV after their team equalised. We haven't had too many football conversations with Turks recently - the last was on the night we left Istanbul and someone made a reference to Liverpool - they were smiling so I guess they were a Fenerbahçe fan.

Our penultimate stop in Turkey was Gaziantep - 'heroic' Antep, named for fighting off the French after the First World War. Our sole purpose to visit was to see their Roman mosaics, recovered from ruins on the banks of the Euphrates before a damn project would have flooded them. The collection was from a very small site where every house had four or five almost intact mosaics. They were superb - with great detail. The city itself is big and modern with very few green spaces - so pretty typical of Turkey. There are a couple of large churches converted to mosques - an indication of the history of the place. Most Syrian christians and Armenians left here when Turkey became a republic. Not quite the cosmopolitan country the soldier tried to have us believe.
We spent a day mooching about and trying to crack on with our mobile library - a small selection of which is featured. We are both avoiding TE Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom - its time will come............

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Burnley Tea Towel

From Selçuk we had an uneventful journey to Pamukkale. In fact it was the dullest journey we've had in Turkey, not helped by low cloud on the surrounding hills. Pamukkale is a tiny place overflowing with hotels and restaurants and sharks. After finding a good place to stay we headed off up the hill to walk through calciferous pools of thermal water. The hillside is a solid white waterfall. Above it are the ruins of Hieropolis, which became a Roman spa town because of the hot spring waters. Perhaps because it is less well-known than Ephesus we actually preferred it. The setting was great and the site was well-labelled. The main street had been rediscovered after 2 metres of calcified rock had been dug up and beside it was a huge agora (market/meeting place). Above the town was the reconstructed amphitheatre and another uncovered road led to an octagonal basilica built on the spot where it was believed Phillip the apostle was killed. We wandered happily around in drizzle and occasional rain before descending the slopes back to the comfort of our pension.
The next day we moved on, taking a long ride to Konya. We arrived in the dark and staggered around looking for the tram into the centre - it seems they're not so big on street lighting round these parts. Anyway, we finally found a hotel that was a shade pricey but toasty warm. A misty night had developed as we sauntered down the high street in search of a magical Indian restaurant. It was not to be so we settled for the good ol' Kebab Salonu. An english-speaking waiter was assigned to us upon entry and he was very friendly. At the end of our meal he got chatting and talked about some English friends from Burnley who had sent him a "tool". We asked about his english and he explained he used to work for a handicrafts shop. He had a map of the city, and as we walked out of the restaurant he carried on talking ceaselessly and took us across the road and down a side street to....a carpet shop. We both wanted to laugh out loud. Inside he showed us his Burnley "tool" - a tea towel pinned to the wall, and then simply because we had nothing else to do we sat there and let his friend show us some carpets. We said we weren't buying and we recited back to him all the usual fluff we get about double-knots, Kurdish kilims, silk embroidery etc. - in fact it's surprising how much we've picked up along the way. After a polite 10 minute rest we said goodnight and left. What a great line though - the Burnley "tool".
Konya is the home to the whirling dervishes - a kind of muslim off-shoot - and you can visit the tomb of the founder, a 12th century Afghan who settled here and began the cult of spinning, inside a Seljuk mosque. The tomb was busy with Turkish tourists and faithful and schoolchildren but I was disappointed by the velvet-covered coffin - I thought they could at least have had it rotating at a stately pace...........

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


"Do you want to buy some Roman coins?" A skinny man in a dirty sweatshirt is pushing a handful of tin toy money at a tourist in front of us and she is dithering. Should she tell him to bugger off or try not be too rude? In the end she says "Maybe on the way out," and walks on. He then stands in front of us with two mobile phones and looks us up and down and growls "What?" "Do you want us to buy a Roman phone?" we ask. He grins woolfishly. "This is Apollo phone - direct from God." And then he produces the tin money again. "Do you want to buy Roman coins? Where are you from?" "We're British" "We're Czech" we say in unison. "We're British archeaologists", Gayle clarifies. His eyes light up and he starts to pull a black leather case from his back pocket. "Then maybe you want to buy some real coins?" We laugh and turn away. "Maybe weed, dope, cocaina??" he shouts after us.

We like Ephesus - they are great Roman ruins. There are two main streets (one closed), a range of reconstructed buildings, a handful of mosaics left in situ. The ruins spread out over a large site and there's a real sense of a city. It was a port but it has long since silted up and the coast is now 7km away. The day is cloudy and there's a few tour buses in the carpark but by the time we begin to walk back to the entrance the crowds have gone and it is quiet. One cruiseship group had a Roman scene acted out for them. Very cheesy - 12 actors pretending to be soldiers, gladiators and caesar etc. - all a bit funny really. The amphitheatre is huge - seating 24,000. A large crane is parked next to it for repairs. The most impressive sight is the rebuilt facade of the library.

We came from Bergama yesterday - a slow journey via Izmir. We had planned to stop in Izmir but after we finally reached the centre we couldn't think of a reason why and immediately hopped on a train to Selçuk. Actually, we hopped onto a bus at the train station that took us to another station where we hopped onto the train. Reminded us of Virgin Rail.

Bergama also has ruins - of the ancient city of Pergamum. They sit on a hill overlooking the new town. When we arrived on our nightbus from Istanbul it was just starting to rain. So we went to bed. In the afternoon the rain continued and we found refuge in a cafe for the town's youth. A place where you can hang out over a cup of tea, smoke endless cigarettes and play a guitar. It seemed popular with girls and boys - looked like students in their drainpipe jeans and gelled hair - just talking and giggling away. Not a drop of alcohol. This is the alternative to the traditional tea house which is solely the domain of men in woolly hats. The next day was sunny and we climbed the hill and entered the ruins by taking a path avoiding the ticket booth. As we climbed past a modern building a man approached us. He had keys for the building and he led us inside. An old house had been excavated and the original floor mosaics were revealed. Fantastic stuff. We continued up the hill to the amphiteatre and through a tunnel out to a square full of tour groups. Gayle overheard the instructions to a Spanish group: "Ir al bano, sacar de photos, comprar algo" (go to the toilet, take some photos, buy something) in the ten minutes before the bus left. Pergamum once had a library to rival that of Alexandria - until Mark Anthony carted the lot off to give to Cleo. We had a look at some of the other remains and then returned the way we had come. Our descent took us through the old town full of run-down Greek houses. A real shame because they had obviously been good homes once.......

From Ephesus we walk back to the town of Selçuk. There is a sign indicating the Temple of Artemis. Our guidebook tells us this was one of the seven Ancient Wonders of the World. Amazed, we go to find a huge field with a single column and a bit of stone here and there. A gaggle of geese are honking in the corner. Three men are sat in the carpark with plastic carrier bags of postcards. Sometimes my imagination fails me.

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Big City

Just had a busy week back in Istanbul - meeting up with my mum and dad and seeing all the major sights. It was actually a very relaxing time for us as we stayed in a comfortable appartment together right by the Galata Tower. It's easy to get around the old part of the city thanks to the modern tram and we visited the Blue Mosque, Aya Sophia and the Topkapı Palace plus some other lesser known places such as a huge underground Byzantine cistern, the Chora Church full of Byzantine mosaics, and the wonderful archaeology museum. The city is hilly which can make the walking around tiring but allows for great views across the Goldern Horn and the Bosphorus. These two waterways seem eternally busy with ferries and cruise ships and tankers. There was also some time to wander around the Grand Bazaar, which seems given over to the tourist trade, and make a visit to a hamam (Turkish Bath). The weather reminded us of Britain - lots of rain and a cold wind off the Bosphorous, but there was some sun too. I can't remember the last time we spent such a length of time with my mum and dad, but it was great fun and made up a little for the time we've been away. The days passed too quickly really.

After finishing our walking on the south coast we had returned to Antalya to collect the rest of our things and do a big laundry session, swap some books and burn our photos to cd (a tortuous task when the bloke in the internet cafe makes a mess of it). The old town there is worth a stroll around but is oddly quiet for such a big city. All the locals use the surrounding modern city, which is fairly ugly and always full of traffic. We then took a nightbus back to Istanbul and took up the kind offer of accomodation from Pam and Joe, the American couple we met by Lake Van. They are teaching English here and have a spare room. It's a joy to stay with such easy-going people - to feel at home straight away and such a contrast to all the anonymous and soulless hotel rooms. After my parents flew back to Blighty we stayed another night with them and finished off some other travel tasks. One of these was to get our visa for Syria. Because we are not applying from our own country, we were required to provide a letter of recommendation from our government. It was a fairly simple task to call in at the British consul (which was a grand mansion in walled seclusion). Security was tight - our bag was searched and when we explained to the guard that all we had in our Sigg bottle was Istanbul tap water he made us drink it. Then he told us that he would never drink Istanbul tap water. Charming. The letter of recommendation took 10 minutes to produce and cost us 60 quid - a bit like going to the dentist. We concluded that this was the biggest rip-off in all our time in Turkey. The content is reproduced below:

"Her Britannic Majesty's Consulate General at Istanbul presents its compliments to the Consulate General of the Arab Republic of Syria and has the honour to inform the Consulate General that Gayle .... and John ..., holders of British passports wish to visit Syria. Her Britannic Majesty's Consulate General has no objection to the issue of Syrian visas to Gayle ... and John ... Her Britannic Majesty's Consulate General at Istanbul avails itself of this opportunity to convey to the Consulate General of the Arab Republic of Syria the assurance of its highest consideration."

Worth every penny, eh? Still, we got the visa so that's where we are heading.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Dog tired

Anyone who knows me will probably know I don't like dogs - I'm scared of them. Well, Turkey has the scariest dogs I've ever seen. The Kangol is bred to guard livestock against attack from wolves or bears. They are big dogs - about the size of a hatchback - and often wear collars of nails either to protect them from wolves or just to look hard. Walking here means you will probably meet one sooner or later. We met three on our walk from Kas. It was a bad day for us really - after five hours of fairly rugged coastal paths, made worse by the mud from recent rain, we decided we couldn't continue on the section of the walk we were doing. We had planned to camp but had not found water all day. Our guidebook indicated three houses - they were deserted. We decided to take a small road that would take us back to the main road and it was along this we were angrily greeted by three Kangols. Admittedly one was a puppy - about the size of a German Shepherd, but it was three too many. We waved to their owner, the dogs got closer, we shouted to the owner, I could count the dogs' fangs, the owner waved us on. What trauma.
Eventually we reached the main road and flagged a bus down going to Kale. We talked about whether we could continue our walk with the lack of water. In Kale there was an anti-PKK rally taking place following an attack in the South-East. 8 soldiers taken hostage, the military threatening to enter northern Iraq, ultra-nationalists clamouring for action. The rally met at Ataturk's statue in the main square. Too many flags and a shouting speaker. A minute's silence for the "martyrs" (soldiers) killed, and then the national anthem. All a bit scary really. We left immediately for Ucagiz.
Happily we found a nice pension and got chatting to Canadian neighbours, Ruth and Gordon, who are on a cycling holiday here. They have enhanced the quality of our travelling experience by donating to us a spare travel-plug, an essential piece of kit if you need to soak your smalls overnight. The next night two German guys turned up who had also walked the stretch from Kas. They too had given up for want of water. We returned to Kale to visit Lycian rock-cut tombs and a theatre. However we skipped on St. Nicholas' church. Born in Patara, he was bishop here around 600 AD. There was a very tasteful statue commemorating his work and generosity to children.

Our next bus dropped us at a trout farm and restaurant. We ate trout. We then descended down towards the sea. On a ridge in pine trees we camped just above Chimaera. This is a strange place where gases seep from the ground and ignite on contact with the air. There are two places where continuous flames are burning, and these became the focus of a fire cult in Lycian times. It was a great spot to camp, but I felt it was the last time I would carry water to a campsite. Next day we descended to Cirali beach. Here all the pensions are hidden amongst the citrus fruit orchards behind the beach. We stayed three nights and relaxed on the beach. This was our last stop on the Lycian Way.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Greece for the day

We have spent nearly 3 months in Turkey and need to renew our visa, but it is simpler to leave the country and re-enter and pay for the new stamp in the passport (Ching! That'll be ten quid thank you). Conveniently located 3 km off shore is the Greek island of Kastellorizo and from Kas there are boatrips every day. Well, actually, as we found out on Friday afternoon when we arrived, they are every weekday, which meant we have had an enforced rest over the last two days. This suited me - I had sore heels, scratched legs, backache, and very smelly feet. Gayle just had a sore ear from all my whingeing. After a couple of days of force-feeding ourselves meat and carbohydrate (moussaka, kebabs and a small island of bread), we looked forward to a day in Greece.
Yesterday we awoke to rain but it was Sunday and we had nowhere to go so waited for it to clear. This morning the pattern repeated. Donning raincoats we joined the hardy few on the quayside waiting to board - an odd mixture of young French, old Germans, an English ex-pat, two young English women with chav tendencies (although I found the sequinned Turkish flag on the red tracksuit rather charming) and an over-amorous man trying to smooch a very disinterested woman. We boarded promptly at 9.55 and left tardily at 10.35, but the crossing was quick and we had three hours to explore. This island was used to film Mediterraneo and the main village was historically much larger than Kas on the mainland. Now it felt deserted - closed up for winter, with a handful of workmen building or renovating houses. Smart Greek houses on the front were boarded up against the winter weather. And a good job too because the westerly winds brought heavy rain soon after we arrived and we had to take refuge in one of the cafes along with the young French. Turned out they were Club Med employees brought over for a new visa because they didn't have work permits.
The rain eventually passed over and we wandered the empty backstreets and up to the old abandoned church. A circuit round to the castle brought us back to our boat. We crossed back across the bumpy straits and as we arrived back in Kas the sun came out. And that was our day out in Greece............

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Thunder and lightning

The sun rises over Phellos and we feel the benefit of camping high. Nice to eat your coco-pops in the sunshine. We strike camp quickly and start winding down the trail to Kas. We reach a very pıcturesque village apparently stuck in time and then stride across red earth tracks though fields to the very edge of the precipice overlooking the sea. We are at about 600 metres and down below us is Kas town and the Mediterranean Sea. The path appears to descend the cliff face beneath us. At first it is well-built, but soon deteriorates to shale and dirt. At the very end we have to clamber down to the newly-tarmacced road. The road builders have dug away the final few steps. Morons.

Kas is a modern touristy town but feels normal enough at the end of the season. We are planning a quick jaunt to a Greek island but have to wait until Monday, so we have a restful weekend wandering around and catching up on our books. Each night there are big storms - heavy warm winds and then rain, culminating in thunder and lightning. Quite glad we're not in our tent! We have been eating well - lots of steam-tray food, buckets of bread and kebabs. There are regional variations of the kebab, named after their origination e.g. the Adana is spicy, the Tokat made with aubergine. We have adopted this nomenclature to describe bowel-movements - a frequent topic of conversation for us travellers. Thus one might have a Trabzon, an Urfa, or if you really are not well, a Safronbolu........

Lots on the TV about the possible invasion of northern Iraq. In the one english-language newspaper there is absolutely no discussion of a political solution to some of the issues the PKK have. Interestingly many Kurds have voted for Erdogan because he talked about having more control over the army. The prime minister seems also to be pressing the US for support at a time when an "Armenia" bill is being discussed by the US Congress. Is it all just noise? The real issues seem to be about the economic development of the South East and for the Kurds to have more cultural rights.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

More walking and not walking

Rain - it's definitely going to rain. We are road-walking past a sea of polytunnels and the sky is very menacing. You can see the rain coming over the mountains. We pass three men sat outside a small building. "Dolmus?" Now, I seem to have given Gayle the impression that I do not wish to walk all 500km of the Lycian Way, and I may have received some criticism for this. But neither of us hesitate to jump into the minibus. The rain falls. We looked out in wonder - it's been a while, you understand. We hang around for the sky to clear before heading to Xanthos which was the capital of the city-federation of Lycia. Mark Anthony lay siege to the city and trashed it. Then 2000 years later a British "explorer" came across it and with the help of the navy removed one of the few remaining buildings. It now stands in the British Museum - which is a fat lot of good for those walking the Lycian Way.
After a wander around we head to the beach of Patara. We find a great hotel just about to close for the winter. It is still hot and sunny most of the time, but the rain this morning is a taster of things to come. Patara was the port for Xanthos - but the estuary silted up and now there is the longest beach in Turkey - remarkably unspoilt. The ruins of Patara are also buried in sand - with a few exceptions - the amphitheatre and the council building where representatives of the federation met. After a couple of days rest we continue on an old Roman road which contours inland through pine forest. We emerge at an aquaduct which was airtight to create a siphon and draw water uphill. Our trail follows the bed of the aquaduct back inland and we stumble out onto an unfinished new highway which leads to Kalkan. A workman leads us down over boulders and through a brand new appartment complex to the street. A flash salesman pulls up in his car. "Would you like to see a duplex?"
Kalkan was probably once a lovely fishing village but now it's spread out and there are holiday complexes and new appartments everywhere. We take a room in an old pension. The owner tells us he now has lots of English neighbours. We find a little cafe to eat in and watch the evening parade of holidaymakers out on the town. Next day finds us climbing up the mountain above Kalkan on an old migration route - a lovely stone road which leads us to the summer pastures and cooler air. It's a long haul though and halfway up I'm struggling - sunstroke I think. Gayle reckons on last night's beer. We stop for tea at a small tea house with the old men of the village. They all stare at us for five minutes and say hello, then thankfully someone pulls out a deck of cards and their attention switches. We take a dolmus to the next village and then walk in the late afternoon sun to Gockoeren. We're looking for somewhere to stay. On the road into the village a couple of dogs detect our presence and menace us. They are with a goatherd but the idiot can't call them off. We get past them and stagger down the main road looking vainly for a pension sign. An old man spots us and takes us in to his daughter's house. They feed and shelter us. After tea the family and neighbours come in to talk to us. Gayle is game so we get out the phrasebook and with a bit of pictionary she soon has them laughing.
Our next day leads us down a forest track and then climbs old paths up to the head of a wide valley which we circle. It's a nice walk although we spend a bit of time thrashing through scrub bushes. Not much water on the uplands though and we fill up for the night at about 2pm at a fountain that is no more than a trickle. After a long day we climb to a ridge with the overgrown ruins of Phellos. It's an atmospheric place with views out to sea and inland to the high mountains. We pitch the tent and watch the stars come out.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Walking and not walking

The Lycian Way seems popular until we realise that we are passing day-walkers trying to walk off their Full English Breakfast. The path is well-trodden as it traverses the steep slopes above the coast. We start to climb and pass a sweaty heavyset man coming back. "Sticks eh?" he comments, " You'll need those." "How do you know?" Gayle asks. Above us paragliders ascend and descend in spirals. Below us turquoise water and rocky headlands. İt is really too sunny and hot to be walking with our packs and I am worrying about water after we pass the third dry cistern. But we drop over a ridge and outside a small village is a running fountain. Gayle shoves her head under the tap.

The views are tremendous back along the coast and above us Baba Dagi - the mountain from which the paragliders are leaping. We find shade in pine trees and pass by hundreds of bankers boxes. Except they're not. They are beehives. Finally our path begins to descend through another village and along a narrowing valley and we emerge at the tarmac road in Faralya. Here we find a lovely pension with a swimming pool run by a beautiful Turkish man with blue eyes. He knows he is beautiful and this makes him ugly.

We meet Jenni and Chris here. Chris has twisted his ankle so the next day we walk the short leg to Kabak with Jenni and Chris takes the dolmus. The walk is brief and we descend to the beach at Kabak. It turns out to be the kind of place you get stuck in. There are a few pensions wıth wooden huts and tree houses and we pick one that looks the oldest but best laid out. Communal meals are taken in the shady restaurant. There's a network of paths leading up and around the old olive terraces on which it sits. The beach is pebbly and quiet and the water clean. In the afternoon we find Luke and Cali pitching their tent at the pension. The evenings are extremely sociable.

It takes us four days before we summon the courage to leave and walk out of the bay with Jenni and Chris. The onward path is an old route that winds its way up what looks like vertical cliffs from below. We lunch together at the top and then part ways and continue to another headland just beyond the village of Gey.

It is Eid or Seker Bayrami- the end of Ramadan. In Gey we stop at a house to ask for water, 5 litres. They have a small dowser in front of the house. There's a bit of a family gathering and they invite us in for tea and biscuits. Fresh grapes are produced for us and we are urged to sit and eat and drink. We manage to communicate a little bit and are glad of the rest in the shade. As the sun drops we say goodbye and stagger off with our fresh water supply. About half an hour later we camp on a tiny flat pitch just as night falls.

Our next day takes us on steep paths along the coast to Bel, another small village where we ask for water and are again invited in for tea and biscuits and the usual mime show. The generosity of the people is quite wonderful. As we relax a guided group walks past. We set off to catch them up and do so on a forrested ridge. The path has moved off the coast but emerges down a very rocky descent to an empty village. We have a choice - to take the contouring coastal road or a short up and over. Foolishly we take the latter. We slog up a forest road and find a fountain dripping into a tank. It takes 40 minutes to fii up for the night. We then struggle through the forest and over the ridge and all the way down to a ruined fort at Pydnai. We are at the very end of a huge bay with a 30km beach. The whole estuary is a mass of polytunnels full of tomatoes. Exhausted we camp behind a cafe at the beach.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Ghost Town

After a very relaxing week or so around Goreme we take a bus back to Antalya. From the infernal August temperatures the days are now more comfortable in the late twenties. We deposit spare clothes and books at a pension in the lovely old town and then catch a bus on to Fethiye from where we want to start walking the Lycian Way. This way-marked path is the first of its kind in Turkey and we have a guidebook and map of the route which runs along the coast from Fethiye to just south of Antalya. Fethiye feels quiet and normal when we arrive and we find a room in a tiny cheap little place run by an old woman who speaks no English. Gayle haggles hard in sign-language and basic numbers. After some shrugs, raised eyebrows, fisticuffs and a bit of hand-wringing we agree to stay and unpack our super-light rucksacks. We have a bare room on a shaded roof terrace over-looking the marina. The ensuite bathroom is typically tiny - the kind where you can have a shit, shave and then shower all in the same spot.

On the terrace we meet Cali and Luke - a couple who have cycled here from Lancaster and look like it. Gayle is fascinated by the idea of cycle-touring and they are soon getting the Twenty Questions. They are great company and we find out they have been blogging as they go ( ). They kindly show us how to change the language on the blogspot screen when we log in to it here - the default language is always Turkish - and this means we can finally start posting blogs.

We fill our packs with trekking food (packet pasta sauces, chocolate spread, museli and coco-pops, mmmmm ) and head off on the preliminary stage of the Lycian Way climbing stiffly out of the town and over a peninsula down to Kayakoy. The day starts badly with our first canine 'brush' - a German Shepherd left to guard an empty house shows his displeasure at our route choice along the road in front. We try to argue reasonably that we are on a public road and the Lycian Way is signposted in this direction but he just won't have it. I hurry past with unseemly haste and take to the old cobbled road in a sweat.

Kayakoy is an old abandoned Greek village which has become a tourist attraction. The town was abandoned in 1923 with the exchange of Greeks and Turks after the Turks won their War of Independence. In most places the houses would have been taken over by Turks but it's believed the Greeks cursed this place and now it is a ruin and subject of a Louis de Berniere novel. After a bit of toing and froing and knocking at a closed pension a man walks out of a shop and accosts us. He takes us to the Kayakoy Art Camp. It's finished for the summer and they have a room set in lovely gardens. It's perfect for us and we doze in the hammocks and ignore the two toy dogs that want to play. Later we stroll around the ghost town set on the hillside above the fields. It's a big place. Apparently the town was so wealthy that the roof tiles were imported from Marseilles. What an odd fact. I wonder if Louis de Bernieres picked up on this detail.

The next day we catch a dolmus to Ovacik from where the Lycian Way starts properly. The village is one huge resort catering to Brits - an overspill of the already over-developed beach of OluDeniz. There are signs everwhere advertising Full English Breakfast Live Premier League Football Azda Happy Hour Sunday Roast Dinner. It is a depressing sight. We walk past the Pink Palace - a restaurant and swimming pool presumably named after the naked pink punters all lying out around the pool. We wonder whether the Greeks' curse had a wider reach than the Turks realised.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

A lot of hot air

Cappadoccia is Tourist Turkey there is no doubt. We are visiting Goreme's Open Air Museum. It's a small area packed with rock-cut churches which are covered on the inside with defaced frescoes. We have paid a whopping 10 Turkish Lira each to enter and now find we can't get in any of the churches because there are pack after pack of tourist groups who have rolled off their buses and joined a crocodile of other groups. Each tour guide spends 15 minutes inside each church talking about goodness knows what (if only we could hear them!) and then is ımmediately replaced by the next group. It appears endless so we go and sit in the shade for a while. Finally there's a dip in the flow and we squeeze ourselves in between a group of Australian teenagers who could possibly be evangelical christians and a gaggle of young Japanese who say "ohhh!" everytime they enter a church. Ultimately we are disappointed - we might have sight fatigue or tour group fatigue or both.

The landscape around Goreme is pretty weird and wonderful. It looks like a flat plain has been split into many valleys full of oddly-shaped rock formations. The rock is formed from volcanic ash from ancient eruptions. Some of the valleys have water and are cultivated mainly with fruit trees - apple and pear - and grapevines. Other valleys are dry and barren and full of misshapen rock sculpted by wind, water and humans. This is cave country. Whole villages full of cave houses. Whole caves full of villages - there are at about 36 "underground cities" where villagers dug down into hillsides to build labyrinths. We visit one and it's a strange place - about 9 levels deep. Forunately it is lit and signposted - it looks so easy to get lost - and only five levels are open. These places date back to the 7th century BC and possibly as far back as Hittite times (way back). The walking through the valleys is also fun and on one day we climb up and out after a pleasant shady walk with no sense of where we might be or what direction we are going in. But we are not lost - from on top you can see the lie of the land.

We're staying at the Kookaburra Pension. The owner is the most miserable and moody Turk we have come across. He looks and acts like a drinker. However, his pension is very nice and we have a barrel-vaulted room with rugs and there's a roof-terrace to sit out on and meet others staying here. We recklessly eat our breakfast here, opting not to pay the extra for one to be provided, and people ask us quietly, with a nod to the surly owner, "Doesn't he say anything to you?" He doesn't, but he does accuse us of stealing a guidebook from his bookshelf. In fact he accuses everyone in turn. It's amazing he has any customers.

Each evening has been spent chatting to Warren and Gail, youthful septugenarians from Canada, who are heading to the Middle East like us. They are full of stories which Warren peppers with phrases like "Holy Hannah!" Gail has decided to take a hot-air balloon ride over the wonderful landscape. Some mornings we have been awake early enough to see a balloon floating over Goreme. The rides all set off at sunrise - what was one company's good idea has now been copied to excess and the rides are compulsory for the tour groups. We are tempted by the idea but put off by the cost. However we agree with Warren to climb the highest ridge overlooking Goreme at dawn to catch the take-off of the ballons. It's a wonderful sight - 28 balloons lifting out of the valleys as the sun comes up. The wonder is enhanced by the early hour and the peacefulness of the scene which is only interrupted when a gas-burner roars more heat into a balloon. They float over us and off into the distance.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Big Heads

We move westwards to Nemrut Dagi - a mountain that now certainly does attract the tour groups. It takes us all day to get close to it - including a long stop in a small nameless town where all the men wore pale lilac arab-style headscarfs (very fetching) - and we find ourselves sat on the side of the approach road trying to hitch a lift up the mountain. A car stops and we load up and the driver explains he is chef of a pension. We are not sure if he means he is the cook or the owner. However the guidebook describes the pension's pleasant back garden as a great spot to camp, which is what we plan to do. The guidebook doesn't describe the gravel carpark or the strange smell which we eventually trace to a dead cat thrown over the wall.
But it's cheap and there other happy campers - a nice couple from the Czech Republic. The chef arranges for the cat's disappearance and we pretend we can't smell it anymore and pitch our tent. The Czechs have negotiated for a ride up to the mountain top at sunset and we join them. There is some initial confusion as to whether we are going or not and finally the chef has to abandon his pots and pans and drives us up there at the last minute. The ride is a 12km pull up a brand new cobbled road. The car stalls a couple of times on the steep stretches and the chef is evidently concerned about getting back in time to cook the tea for his other guests. We ignore his plea to hurry back down to the carpark.

At the top of this mountain is a man-made summit of crushed rock with two ledges - one facing east and one west. On each ledge is a series of huge stone statues. The heads have fallen off due to earthquakes and they now lie before the headless bodies. Each one is about 2 metres high. They are big heads. They were put there by a local king round about the time of Christ and his tomb is thought to lie beneath the false peak. Beside a sculpture of himself sit his fellow gods. It would appear he did actually have a big head.

As the sun drops to the horizon the light softens and the cameras click away. There must be about 60 other tourists here - more than we've probably seen since we left the Kackar mountains. We join the melee and enjoy the sunset. A big moon is already high in the sky. We are about 2500m and the view is wonderful. Old King Antiochus certainly picked a good spot. As we descend back to the carpark and the tour buses and trinket sellers we realise that we are just back on the edge of Tourist Turkey.

The next morning we move on to Malatya for a night. It's a pleasant modern city of about half a million and we idle about the market and along the tree-lined streets. We have chosen a slightly expensive hotel - the cheapie in our guidebook demanded an inflated sum for a grotty room with shared bathroom so opted for something much better. We know it's a good hotel because the sheets actually fit the bed.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"I love the English!"

It's not a statement we often hear, and even now we are tempted to disbelieve this man. He has started talking to us as he washes himself at one of the fountains before entering the Ulu Camii (Big Mosque). We are taking photos of the courtyard and the call to prayer has just reverberated around us. The man is an English teacher and he explains that he has just returned from Bodrum working with Thomas Cook over the summer. We express our embarrassment at the imagined daily summer scene on the streets there : bright red beer bellies, fags and tats - and that's just the women. But he assures us that the English are great tourists - so polite and they tip well. Not like the Poles and Russians who arrive at the bar in the morning and just shout "Beer!" at the bartender. We are not tippers so I feel slightly more embarrassed. And then he asks why we are visiting Diyabakir. He didn't think the English were interested in historical sights or ruins.
There are a few other tourists we pass in the bazaar, but not many. It's not so long ago that the army were fighting the PKK in the streets here - which is hardly a way to attract the tour groups. The city is enormous though - over 600,000 and probably growing. We were told that the army have cleared villages out in their long battle with the PKK and so there are many rural migrants. On our ride in we drive through a modern busy city with parks and smart cafes. There is a real mix of people on the streets and many young men and women trying to look cool and trendy - all drainpipe jeans, converse trainers and gelled hair. We stay in the old city which is encircled by huge black basalt walls - a throwback to Byzantine times and a reflection on it's important location in times past. The city has been fought over many times. On the main road running through are two surviving caravanserai or han. One is now a hotel but the other has shops and a cafe in its courtyard and is a great place to escape the heat and the noise and bustle. But off the main road the backstreets are unpaved and scruffy and very poor. It reminded us of Morocco - with a modern town built next to the old town. Small annoying boys would run up to us shouting hello money money - fairly rare in Turkey - and I wondered if this was what our English teacher has been teaching them to learn. There aren't many sights and we seek out churches built by Syrian Orthodox, Chaldean and Armenian christians. The last is abandoned and derelict but the others are still used by a handful of families.
It's still Ramadan and we go to eat along with everyone else at 6.30pm. Our restaurant is packed when we arrive and deserted when we leave. The locusts have gone and the staff are mopping up the debris.