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.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Prince Charles stayed here

A new day. The sun is shining. A passing dolmus takes us to the next town from where a second dolmus will drop us in Mardin. Nearly every dolmus in Turkey is a Ford Transit. This is good business for Ford. We're surprised that not many have roof racks - and it's always a squeeze to get our rucksacks in behind the backseat. The driver usually just gives everything the old heave ho but it does the trick. There's a lack of air-conditioning and no-one seems keen to open a window. It reminds me of the Grands Taxis in Morocco which have the window handles removed because people believe the fresh air will make them travel sick. The journey seems slow and we climb for a bit through dusty hills until the road levels and suddenly we find ourselves looking southwards down across a huge plateau into Syria. There really isn't a bump - just flat as a map. The road is very straight and eventually the driver turns his head to read the newspaper of the front-seat passenger beside him for a while.
Mardin's old city is perched on a hill and covered in old houses looking out across the Mesopotamian plain. On the crown is a fortress still used by the military. Spreading out between the old houses and below the old town are the usual boring concrete buildings. Everything is sandy brown. We stumble around the backstreets and come across old mosques and a restored caravanserai which is now a five star hotel. We peek inside and one of the receptionists politely shows us around. She tells us that Prince Charles stayed here. Lucky bugger. The building has been well restored. We notice that there are women working here in Mardin and there are more women around on the streets and in the large covered bazaar where we wander.
We find a cafe serving drinks to non-fasters. There are four students tucked away upstairs on the terrace smoking and drinking coke. A TV crew appears - well a man with a camera, a man with a microphone and a third man who finally approaches us after chatting to the students. They want to ask a few questions for a programme on Mardin. The students, all female, have refused because they don't want their families to know how hard they are studying. The interviewer, in a pink shirt and trendy haircut, doesn't speak much english so the assistant has to prompt him with the questions which he then puts to us. His accent is faintly 'Allo 'Allo and he fluffs his lines so many times that we can't keep straight faces. He's laughing too. Goodness what inane comments we respond with but we are confident that we will be edited out.
Just outside of Mardin we visit a Syrian Orthodox monastery, which was the seat of the church until the Archbishop was encouraged to leave. The building is still in use though and an interesting reminder of how christianity spread to this part of the world before Islam or the Turks arrived. The only downside of visiting Mardin is the lack of budget accomodation and after two luxurious nights (!) we move on to Diyabakir - the "capital" of Kurdish Turkey.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Turning the corner

Lake Van is Turkey's largest lake - a huge expanse of wet in a huge expanse of dry. In the distance on the far side we can see the mountain of Suphan looming high. Our bus curves around the edge and passes a turn-off for Iran - we are now heading west and have turned the corner. We get off at a roadside cafe and pier. There's a group of men sat playing cards in the shade. "Akdamar?" the biggest man asks. Where else - there is nothing else here and I'm not going to argue with him. "A boat leaves with ten people." He nods over at the cafe. "There are two. Now you are four." We lug our rucksacks over the road to the shady cafe. We ask about camping and are shown a ledge about four feet wide set at the back of the garden area. We then take tea at a able next to the other punters who are waiting.
Akdamar is a tiny island just off the south shore of the lake on which there sits a newly-restored Armenian church covered in detailed bas-reliefs of biblical scenes. Like many of the sights in this part of Turkey it is far from anything else and we have decided to stay overnight. It's worth it, just. We eventually pay a bit more and take a boat with another couple (the first couple gave up waiting and drove off). The church is very well preserved - and was probably in use until the Armenians were driven out. The views around are fabulous and it's very peaceful. Back at the cafe the camping is crowded - another couple have pitched first on the tiny terrace. Pam and Joe are two Americans teaching English in Istanbul. We talk a while and eat together. Despite being about twenty metres from the main road we sleep well.
In the morning we shove off - flagging down a bus heading for the immortal Batman. The journey is, as always, full of great views and the obligatory army checkpoint. For the first time we are asked to open up our rucksacks for inspection. One look at our mobile library and we are waved on. We climb a high pass of 2000m before starting a long long descent. Batman is a disappointment - no silly costumes. We are only passing through anyway. The bus man takes us to the dolmus we need for Hasankeyf and we hang around with a lot of other people with nothing to do until a driver appears and we depart in a rush. After a slow trawl around a couple of streets - the driver really looks like he has lost his dog or something - we hit the main road.
Hasankeyf is a village on the banks of the Tigris. The river has formed a wide canyon and in the cliffsides are abandoned caves. Behind and above the village is a whole abandoned city of caves. The earth is red. Not much greenery around at this time of year. We check out the "motel" next to the steel bridge. It leans awkwardly over the river. It's awful and the shared facilities are smelly. The balcony of the room is covered in pigeon shit. So we wander down the street to the "camping" - which looks like someone's kitchen garden full of cats. In fact it is. So we head back to the "motel" and haggle. We think we have a fair price until we try to shower later that evening. There's no water. Roaring past outside is the legendary Tigris and the hotel has no water. The hotel also has no staff. There is no-one to complain to. Miraculously sometime later there is water. It feels like the set for Barton Fink.
In the afternoon we wander up to the caves. Neither of us are prepared for the scale of the ruins. Up a narrow gorge we pass the trinket shops and climb worn out old steps to the top of the hill above the village. There are caves everywhere and some even have doors and numbers on them. Paths lead up the cliffs opposite and down the cliffs on the other side and on top there is a warren of abandoned homes. You can wander freely and we find ourselves looking down through holes in roofs or into dark unlit space. The grass is high and golden yellow and from the top there are great views over the river and the remains of an old stone bridge built by the Seljuks. We lose each other but eventually meet up again to catch the sunset. Sunset? Time for food - and the gatekeeper is getting irritable by our late descent. The government plans to build a damn on the Tigris near here and the village and cave city will then be flooded. Unfortunately, the need for energy is greater than the need to conserve more ruins.

Nh, nh, nh, nh, nh, nh, nh, nh, nh, nh, nh, nh, nh Batman!


So it's 5am and the bus pulls into the emptiest and crummiest-looking otogar (bus station) we've seen. We're on the edge of a city asleep. In the cafe the flies outnumber the passengers sleeping at the tables or smoking and drinking glasses of tea. Loud pop music blares from the TV up on the wall. Dirty and scruffy waiters shout nonsense at each other. Through the grimy windows we look down on the dry plain and low hills surrounding Erzurum. The sun slowly lightens the day. There's a saying that goes "A dog always look black at night". But Erzurum looks black even at dawn. We wait until seven and then shoulder our rucksacks and follow the broken pavements and dusty empty roads past concrete housing blocks and shuttered shops. A flicker of life appears as we near the centre. We check our map and head up Tyre Shop Street towards our chosen hotel. A man outside hails us in. The lounge in the entrance is full of breakfasting businessmen. Is there a double room? There is - but it needs to be cleaned. Do we want breakfast while we wait? Cup of tea? Erzurum seems less black all of a sudden.

We are on our way to the Kackar mountains and Erzurum is one of the closest cities in the North East of Turkey. We check our map of the country - we seemed to have skipped across a huge swathe in very little time. The city looks grimy and poor and every roof is corrugated. We are at an altitude of about 1850 metres and behind the city is a big hill with a ski-resort. It looks dry and dusty like everything else around here. Billboards and shop signs proclaim the presence of the electrical goods company Arcelik - fancy having that on your fridge door? We track down the minibus station for onward travel and buy unleaded petrol for our camping stove. We then visit the sights. The castle looks like a couple of old stone walls - we don't bother to climb the small hill. There's an old Seljuk mederse (religious school) with two stunted minarets looking like chimneys. Inside are local women selling dull-looking embroidered tablecloths. Prayers are ending at the Big Mosque and a gang of old men appear with shoes in hand, blinking in the bright light. They look a bit dry and dusty too. I stick my head inside the mosque but it looks shabby and functional - we may have seen the finest in our first days in Turkey. There is a better mosque complex further down the high street next to the park. One building is a museum - we are not tempted. Instead we take a seat at one of the tables in the park - nothing more than a fountain, a row of high hedges, some trees and a lot of fellas drinking tea and Chewing The Fat. We are feeling flat. What are we doing here? Drinking tea like everyone else. There isn't much else to do. And then we hear some live music from the other side of a hedge - two men playing guitars and singing sad melodious songs. It is wonderful and Erzurum doesn't seem so black after all. Some time later we spot a supermarket, no, two supermarkets. I feel giddy with excitement. We need food for camping, but my reaction is still disturbing. Can Carrefour be the highlight of Erzurum?

The bus journey northwards into the mountains is wonderful - the scenery shifting gradually. First, the plains filled with haystacks and farmers gathering the last remnants left in the fields. Then we wind alongside the low brown river that snakes through a wide rock-filled riverbed. The road is being widened and we skate across dusty washboard surfaces and detour across the narrowing valley onto a dirt road. Soon we are climbing above a large natural reservoir of pea-green water and then down into a dry desert gorge. The high cliffs of rock overshadow us - the strata bend and fold like giant's fingerprints. Eventually we reach Yusufeli and a man magically appears at our shoulder, just like the clothes shop owner in Mr Benn, and asks "Barhal?" How does he know? We say yes and after a long wait for other punters our dolmus (minibus) climbs the dirt road up the valley and to the summer villages high in the Kackar mountain range.

It comes as a surprise to find everyone speaking Hebrew at the hostel. This is Turkey? All the other walkers staying in Barhal appear to be Israelis. Thankfully they are more mature than others we have met on our travels - and they are not in huge groups. We chat away and discover another Englishman, Charlie. We have a very interesting night talking with Neomi and Uri - they seem to come from an Israeli Hebden Bridge, liberal, secular and funny (I mean them). We discuss everything you can imagine - from the Royal family to Judaism to Yuri's trip with his mother back to northern Romania where she grew up. It is warm and green in Barhal and the river rushes down the valley. All the Israelis love the water - they don't have enough at home. Below our hostel on the hillside is a huge 10th century Georgian church, sadly closed up and neglected.

We set off on a trek across the mountains to another village via a mountain lake. Charlie joins us for the first night. We climb about 1500 metres up past fertile plots and yaylalar (summer pastures) and huddles of summer houses. There are many abandoned and left to the elements. The tradition of moving the animals onto high ground and living in the mountains for the short summers appears to be dying out. It looks like hard work but paradoxically a tiny paradise to us passersby. We spend a happy evening stargazing and the next day leave Charlie by the lake and climb an unimaginable path up to a high ridge. Our guidebook describes the onward route but we find ourselves looking down a badly eroded and very steep mountainside. After an hour or so of cautious footwork we give up and return to the lake - this route was not for us. Our trekking plans are all awry but we head off a couple of days later up a different valley to Olgunlar, another summer village. We stay at Osman's pension and meet more very nice Israelis. Osman and his wife feed us fresh trout that may just have been plucked from the river outside. Life is simple and good. We head off late the next morning for a short walk up to a camping spot at the head of one valley. We climb up to a shelf overlooking the main valley, out of sight and with lovely views. The pasta and mushroom sauce tastes better than we imagined. The perfect weather threatens to change with a strong wind and Scotch mist the next morning, but the sun soon burns it off and we pick out a goat track up to a high ridge. Over the ridge the path contours along a steep slope and the goat track soon becomes more goat than track. Uh oh. Tantalisingly, we can see where we want to go but the way seems a little too tricky for us. Once again we reluctanctly retreat, cursing our guidebook in frustration. But after a while, when we are resettled in our old camping spot we feel happy and satisfied with where we are. We love the mountains even when we aren't going anywhere. The next day we cross to the other side of the main valley and climb to another pass just to see what is there. We find ourselves looking north to the Black Sea, but everything below us is coated in a quilt of cloud. On the way back to Osman's I felt sad to be leaving.

Our 6am dolmus takes us back to Yusufeli where we pick up a connection to Kars, close to the Armenian border. Once again we have a scenic drive through winding gorges and then up and out onto undulating high plains. As far as the eye can see there are vast herds of cattle grazing the freshly mowed fields. We pass small hamlets of low houses and byres with earth roofs and piles of peat stacked up alongside. It could be a Hebridean island. We also meet our first army checkpoint and everyone has to hand over their id cards for inspection. We arrive in Kars at the end of the afternoon, and it looks as dreary as we feel. The Otel Kent is exactly as described in our guidebook, including the smelly shared facilities. We have failed to find clean hotels in this part of Turkey and I'm afraid to have drawn the sexist conclusion that this is simply because women are rarely allowed to do any work outside the home. This means men are cleaning the hotels. Or not cleaning the hotels. Ramadan has begun and we have to wait for the muezzin's signal before the restaurant will serve up the food we have ordered. We munch our food with a crowd of hungry men. I think we might have seen two women since we've arrived. Itfar is a frenzied affair and the restaurant soon empties and masculine life returns to the streets.

Little did we realise that the morning call to prayer would actually be earlier during Ramadan - but everyone needs enough time to Stuff Their Face before sunrise. I manage to find a teashop serving non-fasters like myself, but nearly walk out when I confuse the price of a glass of tea. 25 million??? The man quotes the old currency even though it changed in 2005 - like nearly everyone else. Thankfully, Gayle explains what he means. We take a minibus with a young German woman, an American and two Spanish women to the ancient capital of Armenia, Ani. It is right on the closed border with Armenia and we drive along what looks suspiciously like a runway on the approach. The neglected ruins of Ani stand on a walled hill overlooking a river gorge. There is a collection of churches, a convent and a mosque all built with the same warm red stone. The rest of the site is covered in straw-coloured grasses with the odd cow munching away. The city had been a stage on the old Silk Route before the Mongols came along and razed it and it was abandoned. One of the churches built in the 10th century only fell down when struck by lightning fifty years ago. We wander slowly around and there's an air of remoteness about the place. Except over the gorge the Armenians are quarrying - spoiling the view. The two countries have yet to resolve their differences - the principal one being Turkey's refusal to acknowledge the deaths of about 1.5 million Armenians who were being driven out of Turkey in around 1915. The Russians had invaded this part of the Ottoman empire in the 1880's, taking Van and Erzurum, in a move to "protect" the christian Armenians. The Turks saw the Armenians as collaborators. It is still illegal in Turkey to talk of the genocide of Armenians by Turkey. Ooops.

Our next stop is Dogubayazit, or Dog Biscuit as one visitor calls it. The bus journey here is wonderful, yet again. We drive around Mount Ararat, the extinct volcano allegedly where Noah's Ark came to rest. Half the town appears to be given over to army barracks and residences and we count thirty tanks parked up. There is a border crossing into Iran here, but the army are here to keep out/down the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK). The south-east of Turkey has been blighted in recent years by the fighting but there is hope that the prime minister is committed to change for the better for the Kurds. It is quite obvious that this is the poor part of the country and there is a need for investment and economic development here. We'll see. For the moment though everything seems fairly normal. At our hotel we meet an Englishman, another John, cycling to Australia. He is about to enter Iran with a German couple who are also cycling. We must have spent a whole morning chatting away with him, but he seems happy to be waylaid as he is having a rest day. It is John ( who gives us the idea of using Blogspot and convinces us how easy it is to use. In the afternoon we visit the local sight - a partially-restored Seljuk palace built in the hills. It's very impressive with wonderful views and the pashas' toilet smels nearly as bad as some we have come across.

Our hopping about continues - to Van, a new city next to the large lake of the same name in the south east corner of Turkey. Here we have a cleanish place to stay and spend almost a day sorting photos and catching up on e-mails and doing not much else. One evening we take a bus down to the ruined castle which sits on a hill overlooking the lake. It's fairly unimpressive - we have seen too many crumbling forts - but we stay for sunset and then descend. As we leave the grounds a group of seven men call us over. They are sat on a blanket and tucking into a tray of lamb stew with bread and pickles and coca-cola. Come and eat, they say and we don't hesitate. Within seconds we are dribbling gravy down our chins and munching on pickled chillies whilst having a broken conversation with the one man who speaks a bit of English. They all work at the hospital and are breaking their fast together in a rather frenetic and hurried manner. They all finish eating before us and simultaneously light cigarettes with a great sigh of relief. We thank them profusely and head off for the long walk back to our hotel. Thankfully they pick us up on their way past and save us the slog back in the dark.

We are now heading west and back towards the centre of Turkey. Our route takes us through the city of Batman. Yes, Batman. Can't wait to see what the locals are wearing.............

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Carpet Sale Now On!

from John:


"Hello, can I help you?" We had just arrived in Erdirne after a tortuous border crossing from Bulgaria. After almost three hours in thirty degree heat passing through exit and entry formalities (immigration, customs, duty free, toilet break, immigration, customs) our bus had dropped us on the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere with four others with the promise that another bus would come along and take us to Erdirne. Amazingly one did. And it dropped us exactly where we wanted to go. But now we were wandering up and down Cheap Hotel Street (there's one in every town) trying to decide whether to stay at the comfortable but more pricey hotel we had looked at or the cheaper rough and ready one (with bathroom cubicle stood Tardis-like in the corner of the room). A man approached us with this greeting. As hardened travellers we tend to ignore anyone who approaches us because in 95% of these cases the person has alterior motives. But the man was well-dressed and spoke English and we gave him the benefit of the doubt. We explained our dilemma and he told us that he was home from working in Germany but he knew of another cheap hotel and described to us where it was. And we said thank you and he left us. All very low-key but the incident has been repeated many times since our arrival here in Turkey. I love it.

We liked Erdirne - a small city with a handful of sights and not many foreign tourists, which invariably means that the locals are not too jaded or cynical with you. It's famous for an annual oil-wrestling festival which we missed, possibly........ On our first night a new supermarket had sponsored a band to perform in the central park - a Turkish Cat Stevens - and the place was packed with families munching bread rings and singing along to the songs. It was windy and we were glad of the cooling breeze. The next day we visited three mosques - the most significant being built by a famous Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan, who believed it was his best work. It was a wonderful and peaceful building set in green gardens, with lots of impressive tilework and other detail. The main building was large and unusually bright thanks to row upon row of windows. We ate lunch in a tiny cafe with six tables and were looked on as novelty punters, lots of attention and smiles all round. We tucked into lamb and aubergine stew with a bowl of thick yoghurt and a baker's van of bread. This meal has been repeated on many occasions since but I'll never tire of it.

From Erdirne it's a short trip to Istanbul - and our first experience of wonderful Turkish buses: air-conditioned, spotlessly clean and cake and coffee served, mmm. Istanbul bus station has four levels and is the size of Chorlton. Thankfully it's on the metro line which connects with a modern tram so relatively easy to navigate into the heart of the old city where we stayed. Our guidebook tells us that the population is 16 million and the city famously straddles the Bosphorous, linking European Turkey wýth Asian Turkey. It is inevitably touristy but equally exciting and as it has spread over several hills there are great views everywhere. The seas are full of boats - ferries, tankers and cruise ships - and the shorelines are busy with commuters crossing back and forth. It did not feel too crowded or busy as we wandered around - many Istanbullus go to the coast for their hols - but there was still a bustle about the bazaars and a long queue for fish butties on the seafront. We spent a few days here, but saved the famous sights for our return in November when we hope to meet up with my mum and dad. Istanbul has a reputation of hard-selling carpet salesmen, but we only brushed with a couple, so we probably don't meet the right criteria as possible punters. Thank goodness.

One evening we were approached by a policeman with a machıne-gun strapped across his protective jacket. "Can I help you? Are you lost?" Poor guy was bored guarding a government building and we ended up chatting for a while, showing him our map of Turkey and where we planned to visit. It was fine until the subject switched to football. As we talked the snub nose of his gun kept jabbing me uncomfortably in the ribs. "United or City?" he asked. City, I replied. "Good. I can't stand Manchester United. I hate Rooney!" Me too, I said with some relief. I had visions of him gunning down United fans as they walked past.......

Our journey onwards south took us by ferry to the Asia side and then by bus to Iznik, known for it's blue tiles that adorn so many Ottoman mosques. It's a small town on a lake and is surrounded by fruit orchards. Our friendly hotel manager greeted us with tea and a quick run-down of the sights. He also suggested a walk out to the surrounding villages which we did on a couple of days. In the fierce sun we trudged, listing all the fruits we could see growing: peaches, apples, pears, grapes, figs, plums, cherries, olives (are they fruit??). At one village we bought cold drinks and engaged in mime with two old fellas who came out to chat to us. They fetched us grapes to eat and when an ice-cream delivery truck pulled up the driver gave us choc-ices. It was all spontaneous and gave us a great feeling. We walked down to the lakeside for sunset one weekend evening and the shore was full of picnicking Turks sat on actual carpets with samovars of tea bubbling away. Despite Turkish coffee being so famous (ly awful) it appears that Turks actually drink more tea than the English............and they grow it all themselves.

Originally our journey was to roughly follow the old Silk Route - a name for several historical trade routes from China across Central Asia to Europe. In the city of Bursa, home to the Ottoman dynasty, we came across a han, an urban caravanserai dedicated to the silk trade. Built in the 1400's its courtyard is now used by several teashops and a small mosque, but in the upper corridors are shops selling silk clothing. Bursa is a modern busy place with a few monuments - the tomb of Osman being the most significant. Osman was the founder of the Ottoman dynasty in the 14th century. The Ottomans were so named so that they would never ever be confused wıth the Osmonds. Bursa is also the centre of peach production and now is the time to eat them. They are bigger than cricket balls, sweet and juıcy and ever so cheap, so we have sampled a fair few. They are competing with Romania's cherries and Morocco's oranges as our favourite Fruit of the Journey.

We continued southward to a stop at Egirdir lake - a quiet town where we could swim in the clean waters and enjoy some fresh air. Our pension was run by a family of women, quite rare, who went out of their way to be helpful. Well, they bought a new backgammon set. From here we headed on to Fethiye with some intrepidation. The Turkish coast is awash with tourists in high season, although many people in Fethiye were asking why there were so few British this year....... We had been looking forward to our holiday with Isabell, Fiona, Dave and the children at a villa just inland at Uzumlu and it turned out to be just ideal for us. We really enjoyed being with them and playing with Alice, Megan and Tom in the pool. The weather has been very hot, so the opportunity to swim in a pool each day, read and eat well was gratefully seized. Each evening we could stargaze and look out for shooting stars and satellites overhead. We befriended the local butcher on our regular forays into the village for food and ice-lollies. You could see him smiling and rubbing his stomach in contentment each time we approached. And Isabell and Gayle on an evening stroll were invited into a garden by some women preparing savoury pancakes. On another day we took a boat trip along some of the rocky bays from Fethiye. The water was crystal clear and inviting to all but to yours truly, a reluctant swimmer when he can't put his feet to the floor.......... The fortnight passed too quickly for us and the goodbyes were terribly hard for us. It took a while for the melancholy to lift.

Our onward journey overnight brought us eastwards into the heart of Anatolia. We had a stop in a village below the ruins of Hattusa, the ancient capital of the Hittites. These people are mentioned in the Old Testament, but nothing more was known about them until an archeologist ın the last century unearthed what are believed to be the official archives, carved on tablets. These have been translated and recount the life and times of the Hittites including all the football results (Hittites 3 Assyrians 1 sounds like a storming match, marred only by trouble after the game) plus the oldest known peace treaty, which was drawn up with the Egyptians. Needless to say there's not much left of a 5,000 year-old city - but we spent a pleasant day wandering around the site which spreads out over a few hills.

Amasya, our next destination, is a small town set in a narrow valley along a river. Above on the cliffs of the hillside are a clutch of tombs cut out of the rock face. These were about as impressive as they sound (not much, eh?), but the town itself had a lively streetlife with much promenading along the riverside and wonderful Carte D'or ice-cream. When in Rome.........we promenaded and ate ice-cream. (Traditional Turkish ice-cream has an added ingredient to make it chewy and melt-resistant, but it's pretty awful. One day I saw a block of the stuff being chopped up with a meat cleaver - it took some effort.) A woman sitting next to Gayle started chatting under pressure from her mother-in-law who obviously wanted to know where we were from, were we married, what were our jobs - the standard questions. When Gayle asked why she chose not to wear a headscarf she explained that as a school teacher she is not allowed to wear one in school. But it was still the summer holidays! We failed to find cheap accomodation in Amasya. We spotted what looked like a cheap hotel, not in our guidebook, but turned around at the entrance when three Russian prostitutes emerged. Sometimes we criticise our Lonely Planet guidebook, but it often does the job required.

Our journey continued with a third nightbus over the rolling plains of Eastern Anatolia - at least this is how I imagine the landscape having never actually seen it!! There were some last-minute shenanigans at the bus station, unusual for Turkey. The man at the bus office changed our ticket for another bus company and seats on the back row. We acted outraged. Tea was offered. He tried to explain it was a better bus but after a bit of huffing and puffing and making a phone call he got us two seats in front of the back row. It killed some time. Tea was offered again. Eventually he shuttled us and two others in his beat-up car to a petrol station on the edge of town where we were eventually bundled aboard the passing bus. To Erzurum. Now, where's that??