Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Once more, with feeling

It's been over a year since we left Blighty and the time has taken its toll. Our boots are starting to fall apart, and Gayle is in need of new trousers. Before we left Cairo she kitted herself out for travel in Iran - long baggy shirt and headscarf. We spent a long time canvassing hijab styles in Cairo too. There is a mind-boggling variety. I am glad it's not for me - I couldn't handle the pins. As it is, Gayle is considering the Benazir Bhutto style. The headscarf debate continues to rage here in Turkey. Our friends Pam and Joe, who we're staying with again, think it's a political smokescreen for other signicant constitutional changes. Currently there is a headscarf ban at school, university and in public office. This stems from Ataturk's original desire to keep the state secular - a desire that is still supported by the military and many Turks. So it has symbolic significance even though there are actually more pressing problems to deal with.

Our own pressing problems have been resolved successfully. First we collected our Iranian visas without hitch. Then Gayle, and eventually me, both bought new walking boots. It feels like a huge expense, but our boots wouldn't have lasted much longer. We also have withdrawn a large amount of cash in Euros and dollars for use in Iran and Central Asia, since we cannot use ATMs in Iran. Carrying wads of dosh is slightly nerve-wracking. We also have picked up a guidebook to China and thanks Isabell for posting the Central Asia one to Pam and Joe. Istanbul seems quiet at this time of year compared to our last visit in November - there are even less fishermen on the Galata Bridge. It's a strange but rather pleasant feeling wandering the streets of a familiar city, not worrying about getting lost. It's almost relaxing.

It has been wonderful to catch up with Joe and Pam, who are teaching English here. We have been spoiled with the comforts of their home - home-cooking, washing machine, red wine, a comfortable bed with a proper pillow - and enjoy their company and insights on life here. Gayle and I are short on small talk these days - I think we ran out in Bulgaria - and it's always stimulating to meet up with other travellers and share enthusiasms. We arrived in Istanbul on Super Tuesday and got caught up in their excitement about the Democrat nominations. They had found out that the Democrats Abroad were organising a primary election in a smart hotel in downtown Istanbul on Saturday night, so we joined them. After a few nibbles and beers we ended up in conversation with some of the organisers, one of whom was married to a wealthy 'Ottoman' businessman. They invited us all to join them in the bar downstairs where they treated us to a meal. It was a funny (weird) evening. I'm sure there would be a bigger turn out at all elections if they came with free beer and nibbles. Yes, They Can!

Sadly we have to keep moving, so say goodbye to Pam & Joe and take a night train to Ankara. We want to visit the archaelogical museum, which is full of good stuff, and pop in to Ataturk's mausoleum. This sits on a grassy hill overlooking the city. The Turkish parliament is voting to change the law on headscarves today and I'm sure I can hear the old fella turning as we walk past his tomb. The city is nicer than I'd expected with lots of low-rise housing in the centre and a lot of trees, but it sprawls out over the hills endlessly. After only one night we are back on the train, this time a sleeper to Erzurum. It is the most luxurious journey we have ever taken. We have a smart cabin for two which we find ourselves almost sharing with Mohammed, who is travelling with his wife and two children next door. He is very friendly and offers us pop and bread and stays to flick through our books and look at our camera. However, he speaks no English and we speak no Turkish, so conversation is limited to the usual What is your name, Where are you going variety. Mo asks us if we are married and we lie and say yes. He seems very pleased to hear this answer, as if it is the right answer, so we don't feel bad about lying. Thankfully Mohammed remembers his other obligations and finally leaves us. We then spend a very comfortable night chugging across Anatolia and awake to a winter wonderland of snow. The brightness is incredible. The whole east of Turkey is blanketed and frozen, despite the sunshine. Erzurum almost looks pretty. Well, perhaps not. We return to the hotel we stayed in before, dump our bags and skate out the door to ,er, to...........not much happening around here.........A good time to internet then.

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