Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Middle East Travelogue#5
September 19, 2006

Dear Family & Friends,
Hello from Syria. Today we were within 45km of Lebanon and all was quiet, so the ceasefire must be holding. We are learning lots of stuff about Syria and having very enjoyable travel experiences here, so this is likely to be another long tale. If that is a problem, read it in segments over a few days.
First of all, I think in the last travelogue the computer eliminated the letter i altogether, instead of changing them all to y's, so hopefully you could still read it. Every Internet place presents different challenges! Internet costs more here than in Turkey: between $2 and $1.50 per hour. Still affordable.
Crossing the border into Syria was an interesting experience. Jan, our Turkey tour leader took us to the border where there were big gates and fences and a bunch of trucks trying to cross but absolutely no tourists! The guard there would not let us walk to the next area, where we had to get stamped out of Turkey, so we had to wait for a Syrian taxi to come. Finally, when it didn't come, one of the border guys drove us over in his car but of course, he charged Jan for it ($7). After getting stamped out of Turkey, we went to the Syrian side, but we had to walk there (about 200 yards). Right away the Syrian border guard we first met said "Welcome to Syria", something which has happened with nearly everyone who talks to us, even when we say we are from America. They are very friendly people. They went through every page of our passports with great care because if you have a stamp from Israel in it, they won't let you in. Also, you must already have a Syrian visa because you can't get one at the border. They cost $100. So they spent a lot of time and even called our tour leader on his cell phone, then finally we got our stamps and waited there. Our tour leader, Bashar, came a short time later and we were off to explore Syria.
He had a minivan waiting for us, only in Syria minivan are really much smaller than in Turkey because they drive these little Suzuki type vans. We headed for Aleppo, about 50km away and the driver drove like a bat out of hell, something everyone here does, we quickly learned. Also, they pull right in front of each other and everyone takes it in stride. We did see some cars that had been hit a lot of times, and also quite a few old beat-up ones that run well. They are probably like Mexicans; master mechanics who keep things running with baling wire and chewing gum because parts are expensive and they don't have much money. One surprising thing is that gasoline is very cheap here. It is subsidized by the government and only costs 7 Syrian pounds per liter or about 50 cents a gallon. Because of this, public transport is cheap and so are taxicabs. Also because of this, at 3PM when the boss at the border goes home, there is a lot of traffic crossing the border to Turkey carrying cheap gas to sell there by bribing the border officials.
Our first impression of Syria was that it is much dirtier than Turkey, and after 2 days here, that first impression has not proved to be false. There is lots of litter everywhere, piles of debris and building materials scattered here and there, the buildings look dingy, there are lots of rocks scattered around, and where there are trees and grass, they often need trimming. The houses are mostly all built of limestone or cement and most are not painted. The new limestone ones look pretty but after a while the pollution makes them look dingy. There are not a lot of high rises here, as in Turkey. The buildings are mostly 3 or 4 stories tall. But today we entered Hama and here we saw that high rises are starting to be built. Bashar said this is perhaps a result of the fact that there are about 4 million Iraqi refugees here and 1 million Lebanese refuges, and they have caused a big housing demand, which has caused prices to skyrocket. He says a housing unit in Aleppo costs about $200,000 and this is for an apartment, not a house!
Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world because it was on the major trade route - the Silk Road. Estimates are that people have been living there for 8000 years. The year 2006 Aleppo has been named the Center for Islamic Culture and they are very proud of this. There is a huge citadel towering over the town on a big natural hill right near the old center. We didn't go in it because most of the inside is gone. It just has a view over the city. There is also a very large covered market called a souq, which has labyrinthine alleyways full of little stalls selling everything from camel meat to carpets to gold jewelry to tourist stuff. But mostly the locals shop there because there aren't many tourists here. That has been refreshing, especially after parts of Turkey, which we think, are over touristed. On the other hand, when the souq salesmen see us coming, they are really after us to visit their shops and buy something! Most of them ask us where we are from and don't seem to be too repelled by the fact that we are from the USA.
Our hotel in Aleppo was right near the center and on a side street, thank goodness, because the traffic there is heavy on the main streets and they honk at each other all the time. This hotel was a definite step down from the ones in Turkey and our first room was not very clean so we had to move to another one. Also, there were large living room type areas on each floor and every night there were men sleeping everywhere there, making it look like a flophouse. At least the breakfast each day was a little different than the usual Turkish breakfast, something we were getting very tired of.
Upon arriving at the hotel, we met the new people who joined our group for this phase of the tour: Hoya and Sophie, a young couple about 30 from the Netherlands. They are delightful and we are so happy to have their company! Bashar, our tour leader is also great, with a wonderful personality and an easygoing manner. Right away we started learning so much about Syria because he is a native. First thing he walked us over to a falafel stand where we had a delicious wrap made out of falafel, tomatoes, chopped cilantro, and tasty yogurt type sauce in a thin pita bread wrap. Falafel is ground up chickpeas mixed with mashed hummus and sesame seeds, deep fried into little doughnuts which they then smash and put in the wrap. They first served us one of the doughnuts and it was delicious. The cost for this very tasty wrap and a cola was about 60 cents. We changed money and are now dealing with the Syria pound, which they also call the lira, and we are getting 51.6 to the dollar.
That evening, Bashar took us to a local restaurant for dinner. Here we were taken to the kitchen where there were about 8 choices of food we could look at and select as our main dish, then we sat at a table and they brought quite a few mezes, or appetizers for us to eat along with the ever-present flat bread, a delicious salad, the main courses, then fruit for dessert. It was way too much food and it only cost 300 lira per person or about $6 each. Bashar then walked us around the Christian Quarter, which had many old buildings and churches and was charming because most were floodlit. We went into 2 restaurants he knew and descended deep into their basements where he showed us passageways that had been dug so the people could get to the citadel underground when the city was under attack.
Just trying to cross the street in Aleppo was a big deal. The traffic never lets up and they never stop for you so you have to wait for just the slightest crack between vehicles and then start walking and they keep coming at you but somehow swerve around you. When we aren't with Bashar, we just find a local and stand by him and then when he starts to cross, we walk right along with him and we make it safely.
Another interesting thing is that here about 90% of the women are wearing the all black robes and head coverings (they look like nuns) and some of them even wear black veils totally covering their faces.
Politically, things have also been interesting. Bashar says that all the people of Syria support Hezbolla, and you see their flag and the picture of their leader nearly as much as you see the picture of the Syrian president. There was a picture of the Hezbolla leader on one side of our hotel entrance and the Hezbolla flag on the other side. On the back of the bus we took today, there was a picture of the Hezbolla leader on the left, in the middle a Hezbolla flag, and on the right a picture of the President of Syria. Many businesses fly the Hezbolla flag outside their entrances.
Yesterday we had a good tour guide for a trip to a basilica one hour away from Aleppo called St. Simeon. Some religious zealot spent 36 years sitting on a pillar and healing people for the glory of god and they built a big basilica around his pillar. Just seeing the countryside near there was interesting as it was very rocky and barren although they seemed to raise a lot of sheep and goats there. Between the border and Aleppo we could see that they raise olives for olive oil, grains, cotton, grapes, and pistachios. They are selling pistachios everywhere because the harvest has just occurred. Today from the bus we could also see okra, sunflowers, tomatoes, and melons. There were also large fields where there were lots of big tents set up and this is because they still have nomadic people who raise sheep and goats and continually move them for grazing. It was odd to see them camped right between houses of nice limestone with green and pleasant gardens and orchards.
Today we visited the most impressive castle left over from the Crusades called Krak de Chevaliers. It was occupied by over 4000 people in the 11th and 12th centuries until the Crusaders were finally run out of the country. It was never breached by the enemy because it was so well built - they just gave it up a couple of months into a siege because there were only about 200 men left by then. It is in a wonderfully complete state and we took several hours to explore it today. It is huge and way up on a hill so they could see for miles if anyone was coming. Saturday night there was a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet there, so there was a big stage and thousands of chairs set up in the courtyard. We were quite surprised that there was so much litter around inside and it obviously isn't being well prepared for tourists, even though they just had a huge influx of people there for the ballet. But this is something we are seeing all over Syria. There are plenty of employees but instead of doing any work or cleaning anything up, they sit around all day. After the fortress, Bashar took us to a nearby restaurant where we had another great meal, this time grilled chicken which you cover with an olive oil and crushed garlic spread. It came with an amazing number of appetizers again, plus salad and fruit, all for 175 lira or about $3.50. They nailed us on the drinks though.
Now we are in Hama in the best hotel we have had yet and Elaine is happy because there is CNN on the TV and also some other English channels. It is clean and comfy and we will enjoy it. But briefly as we leave early tomorrow for Palmyra. More in a few days, probably from Damascus, which we will reach Friday. By the way, Ramadan starts Saturday so things will get even more interesting. Sending big hugs.
Love, Mary & Elaine

Monday, September 18, 2006

September 16, 2006
Middle East Travelogue #4

Dear Friends & Family,
Here we are in a large city called Urfa, which is not too far from the Syrian border. We will be crossing over tomorrow and meeting our new tour guide.
Today we had a farewell luncheon with Jan as tomorrow he drops us at the border and then has to take a 20 hour bus ride back to Istanbul!
The past few days have been the very best yet here in Turkey. We were in Cappadocia, of course. This is an area in the center of the country where there are many varied and incredible land formations due to geologic forces many years ago, mostly volcanic. When erosion worked faster on some layers underneath others, it made many tall columns with tough little caps on top of them, called Fairy Chimneys. Additionally, a lot of the rock was like sandstone and easy to carve into, so the residents carved out entire cities underground and retreated into them when there were invaders. The rest of the time they lived above ground and raised crops. The cities are many layers deep and they have ingenious things like rolling rock doors to block off the passageways, deep ventilation shafts, holes here and there to pour hot oil on any invaders who got in, etc. We visited several of these sights on our first day in the region after a very long overnight bus from Antalya. The second day we were there was the greatest day. It started at 5:10 AM when we were picked up by a van and taken to a place called Goreme. Here we were served coffee and cookies while everyone paid and got registered, and then we were off again in the vans to the place where our hot air balloon would be set up. A crew arrived with the equipment and quickly set it up and by 6:45AM we were in the air! The weather was cold, but the air was fairly still and the sun was soon shining. There were 6 balloons that went up from the company we were with and about 12
more from other companies. There were 4 compartments in our balloon with 5 people in each one. Seeing all the formations from the air and gliding over everything was fabulous. This was my birthday present for this year and I think it is the best one I have ever had. After an hour of floating up and down and even coming very near many of the projecting columns, we made a very soft landing in a grassy field where the crew quickly found us and packed up the balloon. They set up a table with flowers, small cakes, and champagne mixed with sour cherry juice (a popular drink here) and we all toasted a successful flight. They gave us a very nice certificate as a remembrance of our flight and by 9AM we were back at our hotel. The whole experience was the most efficient and enjoyable one we have had in Turkey. This might have been because it is owned and run by a young British woman, who is also one of the pilots. Later that day we visited the Goreme Open Air Museum. This is an area where many churches were carved into the cliffs and hills and some have frescoes painted in them.
Our action-packed day wasn't over yet. We had a rest at the hotel and then in the evening took a taxi to a hall where there was a folk music and dancing performance. We arrived early and were glad we did because they showed us all through the place, which is also a large cave cut into a cliff. The chef in the very modern kitchen proudly opened the huge oven so we could see the lamb he was roasting. Then we were seated at our table. These were arranged in tiers so that everyone could see the dance floor clearly. The musicians played Turkish music on unusual instruments while we enjoyed many different types of mezes – this means appetizers. There were also unlimited drinks available, so we tried several kinds of raki, the typical Turkish drink. It has a licorice taste and is clear until they add water to it and then it looks cloudy. The dinner was served during the dancing and was couscous with lamb, which was tender and delicious. Fruit and baklava for dessert, along with tea and coffee completed the very delicious meal. The folk dancing was quite varied and interesting with several numbers where they had audience participation. When the belly dancer started asking guys from the audience to dance with her, there were lots of takers! Everything ended at about 11:30PM and we were back at our hotel by midnight. Just imagine, all this cost about 20 dollars per person.
The next day we left early and this time we had our own minivan because the places we were going would require too many changes on the public bus. We drove all day across very dry looking terrain, which changed often because we crossed over mountains too. Our driver got pulled over by the police and got a speeding ticket, which will cost him 101 lira, or over 70 dollars. We stopped at a lokantasi for lunch. These are like little cafeterias where the food is all prepared and you just select some food and it is usually inexpensive but tasty. We also had to stop at a place, which is famous for making the best dandourma in Turkey. Dandourma is a type of ice cream that is very elastic in texture. I thought it was good but Elaine doesn’t like it. As we drove through the countryside we could see many women working out in the fields, raking alfalfa, or picking cotton. The houses in the countryside are smaller than in the cities and there are not the big high-rise apartment buildings that you see in all the cities. When we stopped for gas, we learned that diesel here is about 6 dollars a gallon, and unleaded gasoline is about a dollar more! The other funny thing is that when you stop for gas, they offer you tea. Our driver sat and drank tea with the guys there while the van sat and blocked the pumps! We also have passed many goats, which doesn’t surprise us because goat cheese is served every morning for breakfast. Often it is very salty. In the fields there are also lots of sheep, cotton and brussel sprouts. Most of the work is done by workers doing it by hand.
We arrived in Kahta at about 4PM and after checking into our hotel, we left immediately in another van for Mt. Nemrut. The new van had to be 4 wheel drive because Mt. Nemrut is 9000 feet high and some of the roads are very step to get up there. On the top there are 2 terraces, one facing east and one facing west. In between them is a very high mound of small pieces of rock, which they say covers the tomb of King Antiochus, the guy who had this crazy thing built about 2000 years ago. On the terraces were huge stone sculptures of himself and about 5 of the gods because he thought that he was one of them. Because of earthquakes the heads have all fallen off and just those are over 2 meters tall (about 6 feet). We arrived up at the top at about 5:30 and it was a good thing we had a lot of jackets and windbreakers with us because it was very cold and windy up there, even though the sun was still shining. It was also a fairly step climb from the parking lot to the statues – about ½ mile. We took pictures and waited until sunset on the west terrace because that is when there is supposed to be the best light. People who drive up there for sunrise use the east terrace. We were glad that we were heading down right after sunset because it was getting dark and colder very fast. Just building such a thing in such a remote place and so very high on a mountaintop seems like a crazy thing to do. It wasn’t even discovered until the late 1890’s and nothing was done to renovate it or make it accessible to people until the 1950’s.
From the mountain top area we could see over a very vast area and were surprised to see huge bodies of water out on the plains. This is because they have now completed a huge dam project called Ataturk Dam, which collects water from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. This is going to help bring in lots of factories and people into the region but is already causing problems with Syria and Iraq who claim that Turkey is taking more than their share of the water. We visited the dam today on our drive to Urfa and we had to surrender our passports to the guards at the gate and promise not to take any pictures. It is about the same size as Hoover Dam, at least the one we saw today. I think there are others.
In Urfa today we walked around the pilgrimage site where supposedly there is the cave where Abraham was born. There is also something around here concerning Job, but we didn’t see it. We spent some time in the bazaar where we found the cheapest prices in Turkey. We each got a tee shirt for about a dollar. Leather shoes were 7 dollars. We didn’t price anything else because the salesmen were over eager if we displayed any interest. The people here are very friendly and try to speak English to us. It is the first place we have been where they just want to talk to us and don’t have a hidden agenda. I think it is because there are so few tourists here.
Time to close and get ready for tomorrow’s adventures. More from Syria in a few days.
Love, Mary & Elaine

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Middle East Travelogue #3
Dear Friends and Family,
Well, the last time I sat down to write there had been an incident in Jordan, and now there has been an attack on the US Embassy in Syria, another one of our destinations! I'm glad they are getting this out of their systems before we get there! We enter Syria on the 17th.
I had intended to write this send it a few days ago but when we went to the Internet place in Dalyan, we couldn't get on Yahoo! So if this is a little too long, that is why. I also have to get this written and sent quickly because in a short time we are meeting Jan & Lorna to go back to the bus station where we are catching an overnight (ugh) bus to Cappadocia tonight. Nine hours sleeping on a bus - not one of our favorites...
We seem to be spending a LOT of time on buses, as a matter of fact. The public buses are nice, mostly air conditioned, and until yesterday, not too bad. But yesterday we had a 9 hour trip from Dalyan to Olympos which took about 6 hours longer than it needed to because of all the stops. This is the BIG disadvantage to having such a small group. If our group was bigger, the company would rent a minibus for the group and then it would go direct. There was kind of a funny incident on our first public bus. We were the first on at Pamukkale so we got the front seats with great views. Then we went to the next town where a bunch of people got on and it turned out that there were assigned seats so the bus guy made just about everybody shuffle until he got us in the right seats.
Pamukkale was one of our enjoyable stops on this tour. It means cotton castle and it refers to the white hillsides and pools caused by thermal springs. We stayed in a cute pension right near them and could easily walk up the hill to them. The biggest problem was that once you get on the limestone deposits, you have to take off your shoes and walk barefoot. There were areas we had to cross with lots of little rocks which hurt our tender feet. The deposits themselves were kind of smooth but sometimes had hard ripples in them. There are lots of pools but many are now dried out because the water flow has changed. There were so many people there that it was hard to walk uphill with all of them coming down from where the buses park. One lady ran Elaine into a tight spot and she hit her toes so hard that she now had a totally black and blue toe which looks like it is broken. Luckily, she can still walk if she uses her sandals. When we got to the top where most of the people were sitting around in the pools, they were nearly all Germans. One thing we have noticed in our travels is when you combine warmth and water, there WILL be Germans there! It was very hot the day we were there, which was kind of a bummer because besides seeing the pools and terraces, we wanted to walk through the ruins of Hieropolis at the top. This was a Roman city where people used to go for the curative waters of the thermal pools. It was finally abandoned because of all the earthquakes - they got tired of rebuilding it. The ruins were in pretty good shape and walking through the necropolis, where there were interesting sarcophagi, was the best but too darn hot to do it for long.
From there we took a bus to a coastal town called Goçuk where we boarded our gület. This is a wooden Turkish yacht about 70 feet long and which sleeps about 15. Supposedly we were going to cruise the Turquoise Coast, which is what they call the southern coast of Turkey because the water is such a beautiful color. Well, we motored over to a nearby cove where we tied up for a while and snorkeled. The equipment was crappy, and the area where we snorkeled had only a few sea urchins, some yellow sponges, sea grass, about 4 kinds of small fish, and one worm with lots of legs like a centipede. Luckily, the water was pretty warm and refreshing. Of course Lorna didn't swim or snorkel because she is so reclusive that she has not brought a bathing suit. In fact, she doesn't wear pants or shorts either - just long skirts, long sleeved tops, usually a safari jacket, a big floppy brimmed hat, and thick glasses. She reminds us of tales about Victorian ladies traveling. Anyway, Jan, Elaine and I enjoyed it. Then we moored for the night in another cove where the crew fixed us a nice chicken dinner and we enjoyed eating on deck. The temperature was perfect and we stayed up late playing cards with Jan and Mehmet, our captain. Of course we slept well with the quietness of the setting and the balmy temps.
The next day we moved on after breakfast to a resort town called Dalyan. This is a popular place for English people and prices were even quoted there in pounds. Here the big draw is a beach where loggerhead turtles come to lay their eggs, some stupendous rock tombs carved right into the cliff face overlooking the town and across the river, and an ancient ruined city called Caunos. The first evening we were there we waited until late afternoon for a cooler temperature and then we 4 took a boat across the river and walked down to the rock tombs and climbed up there. It was steep and there was lots of loose rock so it was treacherous but we made it. Getting down was the hardest. There wasn't much in them, so actually they were better seen from a distance and we didn't need to climb them at all! Then we walked down to the ruins of Caunos and poked around there but darkness was coming so we had to hurry back to the river where our boatman was waiting. This area has a big estuary because of the river and the silting up of that area from it, so there were mosquitoes for the first time. I had some bites by the time we got back even though I had bug stuff on. The next day Jan, Elaine and I went on an excursion where they took us up the river to some mineral baths and mud pots. There we soaked for a bit, then went into the mud pools and got totally covered in mud, which is supposed to be excellent for the skin. Wow, did we look silly with all that mud all over us, plus it was a hoot to be in there because we were so buoyant we were floating on top of the mud pool. Luckily, they had showers to wash off all the mud, although we found out when we got back to the hotel and showered that we were still wearing some of it under our suits.
Next we went in the boat to the lake for a fresh water swim, then had lunch at a riverside restaurant of typical Turkish dishes. It was a buffet and the food was OK but not great. Then we went through the estuary which was covered in water reeds and bamboo all the way to the Turtle Beach. Here there were umbrellas and lounges to rent but we just kicked back on the sand, took a swim in the warm Aegean waters, and enjoyed the sun for 2 hours. It was a fun day and we think we look younger from the mud bath but who knows!
While we were walking in this town we were passed by a parade of cars following a pickup truck which had about 10 boys in the back, all between the ages of 7-10 I would guess, and all dressed up like little princes. The cars were blowing their horns and making a fuss. It turns out that this day these boys were going to be circumcised and this was a big event. They give them gifts and make them feel special; I suppose it helps with the pain. They say that after that now they a men. Yah, right...
Permit me to make a few more comments about the culture. Many of the older women wear traditional dress, which is either a long and baggy flowered skirt, with a long sleeved top and a scarf which covers all their hair, or in place of the skirt they wear big baggy pants. The younger women seem to be wearing mostly western clothes, and often, just look like women or girls in our country. It is common to see three generations of women together with only the grandmother wearing traditional dress.
The biggest pain here is being around all the people who smoke like fiends. For example, they even let them smoke in the Internet places and I had a guy next to me a few minutes ago who was about smoking me out. Nearly everyone smokes and there are butts everywhere as well as lots of air pollution. I'll bet they will have lots of health problems coming up. The young people are mostly very thin and fit looking. If anyone is chunky or fat, they are usually 40 or older. Childhood obesity is almost non-existent. This despite the fact that they eat massive quantities of bread at every meal and round bready things called simit in between!
Last night we had an interesting event at Olympos. On Mt. Olympos there is an area called the Chimera where gas escapes from the ground and fires light there spontaneously. So we went up there after dinner, in the dark, and hiked about a mile up a steep trail to see these. Took some pictures and then hiked back down, arriving back at our treehouse camp at midnight. This is a backpacker area and today we hiked through the ruins to the beach. We could see why they stay there - the beach was beautiful and the area is too as there are lots of pine forests around. Wish we could have been there earlier yesterday to enjoy the beach too.
I've got to get this sent so we can get back to the bus station. Sending huge hugs to everyone.
Love, Mary & Elaine

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

September 6, 2006
Middle East Travelogue #2

Dear Family & Friends,
Hello from Selçuk, which is located 2 miles from the ruins at Ephesus, and which is not far from the Aegean coast. Before we describe some of our activities, I would like to comment on a few things. First of all, it is the keyboard of the computers here which is substituting the letter y every time I type an i. I have no control over this and hopefully, you can still understand what I write. Other letters and punctuation marks are in different places too, making these somewhat difficult to produce! (NOTE: For posting the blog, the letters have been corrected for easier reading.)
Secondly, apparently there were some difficulties in the sending of the first travelogue a few days ago. If you did not receive it and would like me to resend it, just let me know. Or you can read it on our blog at www.cannellane.blogspot.com.
Thirdly, yes, we just heard about the shooting of 6 tourists in Amman, Jordan on Monday and although this is a place which is on our itinerary, we will still be going there. Security has been stepped up and we are not expecting any further problems.
Our Imaginative Traveler tour has started now, so we have a tour leader and a so-called group. There is only one other person in our group, a rather strange woman from Oxford, England who perfectly fits the stereotype of the typical British spinster. She has never worked but has only been a student and she writes books that never get published. She is very intelligent, has an accent that is difficult to understand, and she mostly doesn't do anything with the rest of us, preferring to explore on her own. Our tour leader, Jan, is from the Czech Republic and he has been leading tours there so this is his first time to lead one in Turkey, thus he hardly knows any more than we do. But he is a pleasant and capable 31 year old and we are having fun with him. Of course, we have been a bit disappointed by this situation because the group socialization is something we always enjoy. We suspect that our group was supposed to be larger but lots of people have cancelled or changed to other tours due to the situation in the Middle East.
As a matter of fact, we are having a group experience here at Selçuk because another group is here at our hotel, having just come over from Greece, so we have been joining them on their activities. Last night we all went for a nice dinner in this pleasant small town, and enjoyed some Turkish mezes. These are small plates of appetizers and with everyone ordering different ones, lots of sharing went on. Today we had a very informative 4 hour tour of the ruins at Ephesus. They were absolutely packed with tour groups but enjoyable nonetheless because they are so spectacular. This town was first Greek and then taken over and made over by the Romans and there are lots of interesting sculptures, structures, roads, sewers, columns, etc. because excavations have been happening here since the 1860's. The most incredible part was an area called the Terrace Houses which is where the houses of some wealthy Romans have been partly excavated and restored. This reveals the way they lived and just seeing their intricate and beautiful mosaic floors, marble walls and fountains, and wall frescoes was worth the extra money we had to pay to get in to this part. That also meant fewer people went through there and that alone made it enjoyable. There is a huge 2 story marble facade called the Celsus Library which is stunning, and a huge amphitheater which seated 24000 people and was so well constructed that the acoustics are perfect and no microphones are needed to reach the people in the upper tiers.
Probably you are wondering what happened in between where we left off after Travelogue 1 and today. We had 2 more days in Istanbul and we used them to explore the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, the Dolmabaçhe Palace, and the Istkilal Caddessi, a very fashionable shopping street. Most impressive was the Dolmabaçhe Palace which was where the sultans and their families lived starting in 1856. Previously they had lived in the Topkapi Palace, but the royals were feeling like they needed a newer, more comfortable and more fashionable place so they built this one which is so extravagant that they nearly bankrupted the kingdom. It is very European in style and it reminded us a lot of the palace at Versailles. It has over 285 rooms with about 150 of them in the harem, which means only the sultan and his wives, children, concubines and servants used them. There is a staircase where all the supports were made of crystal, and in the largest reception hall the crystal chandelier is so huge that it weighs 4500 pounds.
Istkilal Caddessi is the very fashionable shopping street where many of the embassies and consulates are located because it is in the area that used to be reserved for foreigners. It is being renovated and many new stores are moving in as well as trendy restaurants. We visited the Peras Hotel which is where the people stayed who took the Orient Express between Paris and Istanbul in the 1800 and 1900's. It is old and elegant (and expensive).
Monday we left Istanbul on a tourist bus called Hassle Free Tours. A 5 hour drive found us in a small town near battlefields and memorials on the Gallipoli Peninsula. After a nice lunch, we had a tour of the battlefields where so many New Zealanders, Aussies, British and a few French fought and died in WWI. They were trying to take over the peninsula and eventually control the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus so the Allies could use it as a way to get to the Black Sea and supply the Russians especially during winter. They had already tried sending battleships up the Dardanelles but were badly affected by mines. They landed on April 25, 1915 and established a position on the Aegean side of the peninsula and then stayed 9 months without making anymore progress because the Turks had the high side of the hills and ridges. By the time they withdrew, the Allies had lost about 240 thousand men and so had the Turks. And for what?! Our bus was full of Aussies who still are very emotional about this and on Anzac Day, a national holiday in Australia, about 12000 Aussies come to Gallipoli for a ceremony.
Driving down to this place gave us a good chance to look at the Turkish countryside. It is mostly very dry and brown with the majority of the fields being sunflower fields. They are brown and dried out now and they are starting to harvest them. They produce a lot of sunflower seed oil here. The housing situation is that most people live in high rise buildings where they have an apartment or a flat, even in the small towns outside of Istanbul. The roads are pretty bumpy and rough and there are not many highways where there are more than one lane each way so buses can't make good time.
After our battlefield tour, we caught a ferry across the Dardanelles to Çanakkale, a small town on the other side where we spent the night. The next day we had a morning tour of the archeological site at Troy. In excavating it, they found that there have actually been about 9 towns there, built one on top of the other. This was quite a surprise in the 1800's when it happened because they always thought that Troy was just a place in Homer's legends, the Iliad and the Odyssey. There was a replica of the wooden horse and then the ruins, which were interesting because we had an excellent guide there who helped them come to life. Considering that these ruins are 5000 years old, it is kind of humbling.
After our tour, we caught the bus to Selçuk where we are now. It was a distance a little over 200 miles but it took 7 hours because of the road situation and all the traffic in Izmir, a very large city we had to drive through.
The weather is hot here and we are enjoying wearing shorts and sandals and hoping that we continue to have air conditioned hotel rooms such as we have here! Sending big hugs to you all.
Love, Mary & Elaine

Friday, September 01, 2006

September 1, 2006

Middle East Travelogue 1

Dear Friends and Family,

Here we are in Istanbul having a wonderful time,
although we are still suffering from jet lag so
perhaps this message will be short and confusing. Our
flight over on Monday was uneventful, and we were
somewhat surprised at how easy things went at the
airport. We had stayed overnight near SFO at a hotel
because we had to be at the airport by 5AM. It amazed
us that there were so many people there in line
already. Our flight to New York was 5 hours long, we
had about an hour at JFK, and then we had a 9 hour
flight here. We arrived at about 10 on AUG. 29 and
our tour company had a guy there to meet us and a van
to take us to our hotel. It was so pleasant and easy.

There was sunshine and nice temperatures, which we
couldn't enjoy because we hadn't been able to sleep on
the plane so we spent the afternoon napping. Late
that afternoion we walked around the neighborhood a
bit, then went to the Hotel Arcadia terrace on the
roof which has a splendid view overlooking the three
major sights in this area and also the Bosphorus. The
sights are the Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia, and
the Blue Mosque. To celebrate arriving and also my
birthday, we had a drink of the local beer called Efes
Pilsen and took a few pictures just before sunset.
Then we walked to a local restaurant for a typical
turkish dinner, which was delicious.

Our hotel is near the major tourist sights but
still in an older neighborhood where mostly locals
live. Can't get over how many cats are around
everywhere! It comforts Elaine because then there
probably aren't many mice here. So far we have only
seen one dog. There are also lots of little local
eateries, small snack shops, small grocery shops, and
many internet places. These are very reasonable -
about 1 Turkish Lira per hour which is equal to 70
cents. Our hotel room is pretty good,
with lots of room, a so-so air conditioner, and a TV
with lots of channels but only 2 in English - CNN and

Wednesday was another sunny and beautiful day so
we decided to take a cruise on the Bosphorus. The
ferry goes to a small town not far from the Black Sea.
We climbed up the hill above the town so we could
enjoy the great views over the Bosphorus and could see
the Black Sea in the other direction. The Bosphorus
is the waterway which connects the Black Sea to the
Sea of Marmara and Istanbul is spread out along both
sides of it, so there is an Asian side and a European
side. This is why they say that Istanbul is where
East meets west. The ferry ride was pleasant and we
enjoyed being on the water as it was a rather warm
day. Istanbul has about 14 million people, so it is
nice that they are so spread out over this area.

Yesterday we awoke to overcast skies and wind, so
we congratulated ourselves on doing the boating
excursion the day before. Beakfast at our hotel is
always bread with an assortment of jams, soft cheese,
goat cheese, sliced tomatoes, peeled and sliced
cucumbers, melon, juice, tea and coffee. After
eating, we walked over to the former sultan's palace
which is now a museum called Topkapi. We wanted to
get there early because our books say that it is
difficult to get a tour of the harem if you go later.
We got the first tour at 10AM and although it looked
opulent for the time, it also seemed like it would be
very cold and uncomfortable because there was so much
tile everywhere. With the sultan's family,
concubines, servants, etc. there were about 1200
people living there! Both of us thought the Treasury,
where they displayed the jeweled swords, pendants,
cups, etc. was much more interesting.

It was raining as we left the palace, but the Hagia
Sophia was nearby so we went there next. This is an
immense former church and former mosque which is now a
museum. Justinian built it in 537 and it was
the largest church in the world, had amazing
architecture because of its huge dome, and had
absolutely stunning golden mosaics with Christian
themes. When the Moslems took over in 1453 they
turned it into a mosque and plastered over the
mosaics. Now they have been uncovering and restoring
them since it has been a museum since 1935. There are
huge scaffolds set up in the main dome area which
somewhat ruin the effect of the huge area under the
main dome. It is a bit sobering to walk up the ramp
to the upper gallery and realize that people have been
walking on those same stones for over 1500 years!
There are even depressions in the marble where the
sultans guards used to stand just inside the Imperial

Next we went to the Blue Mosque just down the
street. This is still a working mosque so we had to
remove our shoes and cover our heads to enter. It has
some wonderful blue tilework and an interesting carpet
on the floor with little spaces marked out for each
worshiper to kneel on. Just the fact that we could
enter was unusual after being in Morocco last May
because there is only one Mosque in the whole country
that allows non-Muslims to enter there, but here it
seems that there are less restrictive policies. This
mosque is almost as large as the Hagia Sophia and has
4 or 5 minarets outside. Most of the other smaller
mosques here have only one minaret.

For dinner last night we went to a local place
which was like a small cafeteria where they had some
pretty nice choices of Turkish dishes and the cost was
10 lira for both of us (7 USD). One of the guys there
spoke English and explained all the choices to us. So
far we have encountered friendliness from everyone,
even when we speak to them and they realize that we
are Americans. Often they are just chatting us up in
order to try to sell us a carpet or some jewelry,
although we have had some nice conversations with guys
who did not have a hidden agenda. One thing that kind
of puts us off is that it is always men everywhere,
usually sitting in outdoor cafes drinking tea,
smoking, and playing cards, or eating in the
restaurants. Rarely do you see a man and woman
together. At some of the tourist sights, there are
Muslim women and they are in groups of women, not with

Today we went to the Basilica Cistern, which is
one of the largest of the many cisterns that are here
under the city. Apparently this one was built by the
Romans because there are over 300 columns supporting
the very high roof and 2 of them have medusa heads
carved in marble blocks at their bases that are
thought to have come from other Roman buildings. The
cistern is full of water and even has fish swimming in
it, some of them are very large carp. This supplied
water to the populace in ancient times.

After that we walked through the large covered
market and visited the Egyptian Spice Market. Both of
these areas have quite a large variety of shops and
are very organized and clean. This market reminded us
a lot of some of the markets in Morocco.

This city seems very clean as the street sweeper
comes by our hotel everyday at 6:30AM! In nearly
every block there are stands or carts selling
wonderfully colorful fruits and veggies. There are
also many, many bakeries and pastry shops selling lots
of varieties of breads and other doughy treats. There
are small stores everywhere and we use these to buy
drinking water because here you can't drink the tap

So far we are enjoying our time here very much and
haven't felt uncomfortable or threatened in the least.
So don't worry about us at all! We will be exploring
on our own for another few days and then Sunday we
will meet our tour group. Until the next report, we
are sending big hugs and hoping that all is going well
for you there.

Love, Mary & Elaine