Saturday, July 23, 2005

James encounters contradictions in Bulgaria

Varna - Veliko Tarnovo - Plovdiv - Bachkovo - Koprishtitsa - Sofia


Upon entering the country, one could feel the middle eastern influence slip away, replaced with something else, a more romantic, mysterious, melancholic atmosphere. A beautiful country, full of ancient monasteries and pretty medieval villages in picturesque settings, mountains, forests, a land steeped in folklore, legend, dancing, stories and music, the people a gentle, warm, proud welcoming race. The food is plentiful, rich and filling (though they have an obsession with too much salt!) Here lies the first contradiction - how a poor country like Bulgaria are able to have such good quality cheap food in large quantities, yet remain thin and in poverty? Consider too that salt was once as valuable as gold in the past, yet their (meat) dishes seem to contain alot of it! The second contradiction is how they could still afford to walk around dressed with the latest designer clothing when many people are still unemployed?

The women in Bulgaria are, as with most of Eastern Europe, absolutely stunning! Dressed in skimpy outfits and high heels, it's a mans paradise! However, despite that male chauvinist statement, it is indeed a "women on top" world here, where women are able to easily pick and choose out of the bunch of drooling males which ones they
prefer to have their way with and then leave hearts broken. However, on top of this contradiction lies another - most Eastern European girls are not arrogant, stuck up or snobby as one would think with their looks and power. In fact they (English speaking ones that is) are quite amiable, down to earth, fun and friendly. If only I could master their language....

Bulgarian is not the most easiest language to learn. I was hoping it would be similar to the Czech/Slovak I picked up last year (which it is in some cases such as Good Day = Dobre Den (Slovak)/Dobar Den (Bulgarian)), but there are many words like Thankyou = Dekuji (Czech)/Dekujem (Slovak), Blagodarya (Bulgarian) which is completely
different. Not to mention the alphabet is Cyrillic like Greek and Russian, which you must learn in order to get by in the country.

Because I had arrived in Varna late at night due to stupid bus I had to resort to getting a double room in a semi expensive hotel (all others were full), for 40 euros! Ironic how the most expensive room I’ve paid for is not in Paris, or England, but in poor Bulgaria!!

Found a cheaper room first thing in the morning, but did not know of the existence of a cheap hostel until I bumped into an English couple in Veliko Tarnova! Typical.

At least a nice old French couple I met on the bus to Varna shouted me lunch and dinner that day, so I guess some of the money I lost was made back through that...

Varna is a beautiful city by the Black Sea, where topless sunbathers would swim in waters that don't look as clean as I had hoped. In fact Black Sea should be renamed to Brown Sea from the looks of things. Still, Varna boasts an amazing cathedral, it's gold onion shaped domes similar to those seen in Russian architecture. Varna has large
pedestrianised streets and squares filled with chic designer clothes shops and banks, as well as overpriced hotels and amazing restaurants.

At night, the crowds shift to the waterfront, where a plethora of fancy grill and fish restaurants, outdoor bars, and beach night clubs abound, pounding music (lots of late 80's and 90's actually - seems to be an Eastern European obsession really) into the early morning...

A stunning place, a more dramatic version of Czech Republic's "Cesky Krumlov", a beautiful town filled with traditional wooden Bulgarian houses cascading down a curved gorge, several picturesque railroad and foot bridges connecting both sides of the gorge. At the highest point lies the Tsarvorets Fortress, an outstanding complex of ruins, sturdy ramparts, and a basilica in the center containing fascinating unique 80s bleak communistic style manga-esque murals of Christ.

I had also inadvertently visited Veliko Tarnovo at the same time that an International Folk Festival was being held, featuring folk acts from the Armenia, Eastern Europe, Korea, Italy, Spain, Mexico, and Russia (the latter two bringing the house down with it's fire dancing and frantic leg kicking, whilst Spain and Korea were surprisingly
disappointing and lacking in spirit. Italy's flag throwing was fascinating and original).

Stayed in a private house with a cheery old lady who was always giggling, sharing a room with a 60yo Aussie woman who had lived abroad in Spain for 16 years and was now motorbiking overland back to Oz to claim her pension. As you do.

The second largest city in Bulgaria, with a pretty medieval old town featuring houses from the Bulgarian National Revival period (created as silent protest against Turkish dominance and influence during their occupation during the Ottoman Empire, distinguished by colourful buildings with painted floral motifs and jutted out stories held up by curved heavy wooden beams...), amongst well preserved roman ruins, built upon rather uneven cobbled hilly narrow streets. Outside the old town the city is quite modern with the main pedestrianised thoroughfare lined with designer shops and chic bars and cafes.

Stayed in a private house of an old granny who I could only speak to in German, and her lovely granddaughter who luckily spoke fluent English.

Did a day trip out to Bachkovo Monastery. Was worried when I got on the bus because I asked the driver if it went to the monastery and he nodded his head. Bulgarians shake their head for yes, nod for no. To add to the confusion, they would do the opposite for our benefit. Thus I wasn't sure if he meant yes or no. Luckily, after passing through
some beautiful valleys and countryside, I made it to the monastery, containing several beautiful old basilicas with old Byzantine murals covered with centuries of soot and candle smoke, all set in a picturesque region surrounded by tall mountains.

After some difficulty of actually getting to this tiny village (public transport is not very reliable or frequent), I arrived to what is probably one of the most beautiful villages I have ever visited in my travels. Bulgarian National Revival style houses abound in the town divided by a series of small bubbling brooks and streams, crossed over on romantic stone bridges; the cobbled streets with wild grass poking through the cracks; upon which friendly farmers and locals would walk by with their herds of white goats or cows, or on a horse drawn carriage containing bundles of hay and local kids going for a ride.

The lovely woman whose house I stayed at (I could only communicate to her in French) lent me her prized book on an account of "A Bulgarian Pilgrimage from Koprivshtitsa to Jerusalem" which in the past was a rare but highly regarded thing to do, resulting in a person's name change to "Hadzni" (meaning Pilgrim in Turkish), and status being elevated to be considered an elder who's knowledge is unquestionable, upon visiting the holy land. After telling her about my travels from Jerusalem to here, I also earned the title of "Hadzni".

Sofia is the highest capital in Europe, being on a plateau 1000m above sea level. A very modern city, with no real attractions besides a few stunning Russian style influenced cathedrals, and the wicked nightlife, which I am recovering from as we speak.

It is here that I am writing this, in a lovely family owned hostel, while I await for the Romanian Embassy to open so I can get my visa before entering the country (via Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia and Serbia). I could get it in Serbia but I want to get it over and done with now rather than later (Romania is the only place I am visiting in Eastern Europe that I need to get a visa in advance).

Saturday, July 9, 2005

Sleeping in boats, treehouses and caves in Turkey

Fethiye - Kas - Olympos - Chimera - Cappadocia


Firstly, I’m safe and well after being left without internet access or newspaper, though I did hear about the London bombing whilst on the boat (amazing how news reaches the remotest places). Also, the bus bombing in Kusadasi was no where near me (the closest was when I was in Selcuk, which is 50km away, which I left a few days before it
happened). So all is well.

Secondly, I’m writing this while a little inebriated, so forgive the strangeness of my writing...

Went on a Turkish gulet boat cruise for 4 days, sailing along the southern coast of Turkey from Fethiye to Olympos. We passed through stunning coastal scenery, little villages, and swam in isolated lagoons, including the "Blue Lagoon" where I did my paragliding. The chef on board was a wonderful cook - I never ate so well in my life (sorry mum) with the simplest of ingredients, absolutely divine!

You would think that being the only single guy on the boat I would end up with one of them, but unfortunately/typically for me it did not happen, even though the 5 girls that I ended up travelling with became known as my harem!

Kas was a nice coastal town, with pretty good nightlife. I encountered some locals who told me the best place to go, but said that because they had no girls with them they couldn't go in (neither did I then as the girls went to bed early). So I told them what about letting us in with me because I am a tourist and want to see the wonderful Kas
nightlife. This line along with my best puppy eyed innocent expression and we were in! The Turkish party pretty wild, although they do not consume as much alcohol as we do, they sure know how to dance, occasionally forming circles and having danceoffs!

Four days later, fattened up, nicely tanned (I sometimes get mistaken for Arab now I’m so dark) and very relaxed, we went for more relaxation in Olympos....

Olympos is basically a place where one truly does nothing. With a beach nearby (which one has to pay to walk through ruins to get to - scandalous!), and everywhere being pensions with wooden huts on stilts next to trees (so really it is a tree - house), restaurants, and clubs, all one does is chill out on the beach or the hammocks/pagolas
lined with rugs and carpets (a nice get up I want to set up back at home), smoking water pipes or playing backgammon (which I have really become addicted to - the speed the locals play is astounding, and the
skill - lost terribly to a local girl I met on the beach - yes we brought the backgammon board to the beach also!). Or go drinking and partying in the many clubs, one club being the Orange club, which is an open air courtyard, with towering mountains lit up with strobes and laser lights above - cool place but trance music terrible. Another club, according to another local girl, voted best club in the world 2003, called the Bull Bar, which is another courtyard club with a bonfire in the middle. Music was mediocre.

Went to visit the Chimera at night, which is a natural phenomenon. Basically, gas (of an unknown composition) rises from the ground and when it makes contact with air, ignites into a flame, creating the mysterious flames that litter this area as if the ground has been set alight by a campfire nutter. Pretty cool (hot) stuff!

Went with 2 of my harem (2 lovely south Africans) to go white water rafting. We thought it would be nearby, but 4 hours later and 3 blown rear tyres, we ended up in some national park in the middle of nowhere. The rafting was so much fun though, no more than grade 3 at most rapids - At one stage we got to get off the raft and jump into one of the rapids, floating terrifyingly fast downstream before swimming to the bank. We also made sure that we attacked every other raft nearby with water, making some really spectacular water fights I’ve been in.

Left Olympos with only 2 of my harem left to Cappadocia in the center of Turkey. This landscape is also a natural phenomenon, due to volcanic upshifts of basalt and other factors, the land is now dotted with rock pillars that look like massive stone witches hats dominating the earth, many of these pillars with carved steps, caves and churches
with 11th century earthen frescos which the Hittites lived in the past. Also remarkable are the 8 level underground cities/fortresses, booby traps and all, which the people hid in when invading armies kept coming into their land. It is speculated that only 11 out of 36 have been found, all interlinked by dark tunnels, all able to contain over 10,000 people!

Hired a scooter to drive around the area scouting out the fairy chimneys and exploring, which was alot of fun, though couldn't go full speed due to the girls putt putting along, resulting in my engine constantly stalling...

Went on a hot air balloon ride to see Cappadocia from above, which was absolutely stunning (as you can see my trip in Turkey has been more of indulgence and thrill seeking than actual exploring of cultures etc). We rode the third largest balloon in the world in the place regarded as the best place in the world to hot air balloon in. The pilot was an experienced Belgium pilot who took us up high and down low close enough to the valleys where we could reach out and touch the trees or the rock cliffs - definitely worth the steep price tag.

I am in Istanbul again, having gone on an spending spree, getting a good deal on a backgammon board and a patchwork quilt in the famous covered market, and enjoying the sights and sounds of a city which is fast becoming one of my favourite cities in the world....

Tomorrow I head to Bulgaria, possibly Varna on the Black Sea coast, otherwise Sofia....stay tuned...

Gule Gule!

Friday, July 1, 2005

Istanbul to Oludeniz

Istanbul - Gallipoli - Cannakale - Troy - Selcuk - Ephesus – Pamukkale - Fethiye - Oludeniz



Because of bad planning, I had booked a flight from Amman Jordan to Istanbul. I had changed my flight 4 times in order to visit the other areas of the middle east, but the location had to stay the same. So, since I was in Israel, I had to make my way to Jordan airport to fly to Turkey.

So, I left Jerusalem to catch a bus to get to the Israeli border into Jordan (which I got through in 2 minutes thanks to a pushy but friendly woman working there who dragged me through to the arms of a waiting bus conductor), then from the border into Amman, in order to catch a bus to the airport. The theory I had was, I could sleep and hang out in the airport, and then enter international airspace before 1am to avoid departure tax. What was I thinking? Got to the airport at 6pm to find that there is nowhere to sleep and no shops to peruse outside the check in point! And I couldn't check in and enter international airspace till 2am (the flight was 4am).

So for 8hrs I did nothing (though did talk to the second Muslim fundamentalist I met that day at a cafe, a good one, not a negative one like the first I met at the bus stop. This second one actually cried when he heard about 9/11, saying that is not true Islam, Islam is about humanity, you can only kill a person as punishment if that person has murdered someone else (to prevent repercussions and enforce justice). Suicide is also a major sin in Islam, meaning suicide bombing is not anything to do with Islam, but of winning a war (think Japanese Kamikaze pilots).

Arrived in Istanbul absolutely knackered, and encountered some exceptional friendliness by the people I met from the airport to the hostel I ended up staying at. Turkish people are generous, friendly and hospitable (but only if they are not trying to sell you something, which unfortunately exists in all the tourist places. For example, trying to find the cost of a bus to another town, they'll insist you go through one of their tours instead. Ask for a good place to eat,
they'll insist you eat at their place only because everywhere else you'll get sick!

Anyway, mix Lisbon, Prague and Stockholm together with a bit of oriental flavouring, and what do you get? Istanbul. Built on two continents, split in three parts by the bosphorus strait, and with beautiful colourful Ottoman, Malmuk and Byzantine buildings, multi-domed multi-minareted mosques, and enormous palaces on the waterfront, Istanbul is a stunning jewel in the crown of Europe.

Went to the famous 400yo Blue Mosque, it's 6 minarets and roof consisting of half domes and domes, the interior decorated with stained glass and patterns giving it the distinctive blue effect within. Aya Sophia, a 1600yo church converted to mosque stands opposite, a beautiful garden separating the two. Aya Sophia is considered designed by God, except I don't think God would have scaffolding all over the place. Also visited the dramatic Suleyman Mosque on top of a hill, dedicated to one of the founders of Turkey (Suleyman the Magnificent).

Skipped the overpriced over-touristed Topkapi palace, opting for the more dramatic eerie Basilica Cistern, a huge underground dark cavern supported by 600+ pillars, lit only by strategically placed red and green lighting illuminating the pillars and waters below with the massive fish swimming around, organ music completing the atmosphere. A definite must see.

The grand bazaar/souk/covered market was impressive, though I thought very clean, organised and polished compared to middle east standards. As a result, something felt missing there, it felt more like an ordinary marketplace. Could be that this side of Turkey is very European indeed.

Did a cruise on the Bosphorus strait from Istanbul to the Black Sea and back, passing by ancient beautiful mosques and palaces on the waterfront on the turquoise blue waters, enjoying a delicious fish/calamari/mussels meal in the many fish restaurants waiting eagerly for people on the cruise to arrive...

It is unfortunate, but due to the change of currency (they have scrapped the millions of lire by removing the 6 zeros), their desired entry to the EU, and tourism, prices have gone up dramatically. Some people think that joining the EU would be good for the economy, but the poorer Asian/East part of Turkey is now where near ready to join the EU. We'll just have to wait and see...

Did a small tour involving Gallipoli and Troy (got ripped off too!).

Gallipoli was impressive, being able to walk amongst the trenches, view the extremely steep terrain the ANZACS had to climb up, and the stories of what happened during the war. The war between the Aussies and Turks was considered a "gentlemen’s war", in that they both were evenly matched, and knowing that, believed that killing each other was pointless, instead becoming friends in a war that had nothing really to do with them (Turkey being tricked by Germany to join the Axis, Aussies being told what to do by the Brits with their poor management of the whole affair there).

It is amazing the stories of bravery, courage, and humanity.
One story: The Turks were given rations of tobacco, but had no paper to roll it in. They filled a large bag with tobacco, and waved a white flag to cease fire. A Turkish boy ran to the Aussie trenches a few metres away and gave them the bag with a note along the lines of "We have Tobacco. You have paper. Trade?" The Aussies threw the bag back with all the paper they could fill it with. After that, an eerie silence followed, along with many wisps of smoke coming up from both trenches...

I could tell more, but this email is too long. But I sure feel proud to be an Australian!

Stayed the night in Canakkale, where the wooden horse used in the latest Troy movie resides. Got lost finding the hostel, so ended up asking some locals in a shop. They didn't speak English, so I thanked them and was about to leave except they stopped me, saying "one moment, don't go". All three of them then took out their mobile phones and started calling all their friends they knew could speak English! And then, after I explained my situation to the person on the phone, they all led me to the hostel! Turkish hospitality - nothing beats it!

Went to Troy, which had a dodgy wooden horse in front of the ruins. Troy is actually 9 cities all built on top of one another, the 6th Troy allegedly being the one told in Homers Iliad. The site was pretty boring, and heavy rain didn't really help enhance it. Still, nice to be able to see for myself the location of a legend.

Selcuk is a nice town, with a castle and etc, but most people go there to see Ephesus, which is a pretty cool preserved roman ruin, with many statues and pillars gracing the site. The famous library which you see in all postcards is deceptively large (due to the architects brilliance).

A stunning place, Pamukkale is really a rural Turkish village with a touristic street leading to a spectacular natural phenomena –the travertines. Nature has created a mountain where a spring with mineral and calcium deposits trickle down the enter face of the mountain, creating turquoise blue ponds and pools on snow white terraces. On top
there is a thermal bath where you can swim in a pool littered with old pillars and ruins that had been there previously. Definitely a must see!

Caught a local bus through stunning mountain views and rural villages to Fethiye, a very touristy harbour and coast on the south of Turkey.

Went paragliding in Oludeniz. Absolutely fantastic! First you are driven in a Jeep up rugged terrain and narrow dirt roads up the mountain till you are 2000m up with stunning views all around. Then you put on this outfit and then connected to your pilot. A nice breeze in the right direction, running down a gentle slope, and up in the air you're flying! Oludeniz is the second best place to do paragliding apparently, and the stunning views of the Blue Lagoon, Butterfly Valley and the beaches of Oludeniz is spectacular! Even got to do some spin dive tricks which was wicked!

I will be spending the next two weeks sleeping on boats, treehouses and caves, as I will do a boat cruise to Olympos, chill out there, then go to Cappadocia with stunning natural rock phenomenon! Afterwards I may do East Turkey, or head to Bulgaria Stay tuned!