Saturday, June 24, 2006

Greetings, everyone, from Baku, Azerbaijan! We have arrived safely after a very adventurous couple of days of travel. So far our time in Baku has been spent taking care of some very important business and changing from hotel to hotel. So, instead of spending time composing a blog entry detailing our amazing adventure across Georgia and Azerbaijan, we're first going to try and relax and see the sights in Baku (especially since we, regretably, won't get to travel to the South part of the country). We will fly out Wednesday to Tashkent. Look forward to hearing about knife-wielding Georgian teenagers, organ-shaking minivan rides to the border, corrupt Azeri train conductors, the sweetest-ever Azeri train engineer, sweet-tart fresh barberries, and crumbling, mildewy, raunchy Baku hotel rooms!!!

A few pictures from along the way . . .

Sonja at Sumela Monistary outside of Trabzon, Turkey
Rize, Turkey
Old City, Baku
Fire in Baku!

Monday, June 19, 2006

June 17
After a week in Istanbul, and with all the visas we could get (or had time to wait for), we took a train to Eastern Turkey. Early Friday morning, with our backpacks overloaded with books and equipment, we walked toward the bus that could take us across the river bridge and to the ferry that would take us to the train station. Reaching the bus stop, we realized that it was too early to buy a bus ticket and started walking down the hill towards the bridge. Maybe it was because we were a little sleep deprived and without caffeine, but about a mile later we found ourselves walking across the bridge, legs and backs aching from the massive cargo we were hauling. I guess we were just too stubborn to take a taxi. At least we provided some entertainment for the local commuters; one guy attempted a garbled “good morning” in English and then just started laughing at us as he passed by. He even turned around a couple of times to look again, still laughing. I guess normal people don’t walk around with huge backpacks on.

By the time we reached Haydarapasha, the train station on the Asian shore of Istanbul, Sonja was in a particularly foul mood—one hour without even tea (never mind water or food) and a mile long hike with perhaps 75 extra pounds will make anyone crabby, but especially one who likes the morning caffeine boost (although, Andy seemed to do just fine without any caffeine) So, we grabbed a quick cup of tea before jumping onto the train.

When we originally reached Istanbul, everyone was telling us, “Take the bus, the trains are no good; they’re too slow.” But about three quarters of the way through our stay, we heard the opposite story from those who had a bit more experience traveling in Turkey. Well, after our experience with train station information clerks and our mutual love for train transportation, we decided that the train was the way to go. Dogu Expressi to Erzurum, only 56 YTL (the new Turkish Lira, which we have given our own nickname, Yentil) per person (that’s about $35 US) for a private sleeper compartment with two beds and a sink! It took longer than the bus, a total of 36 hours, but the scenery was spectacular . . . farms and mountains and rolling hills and fields.
Tons of wildflowers and beehives, too. And we got breakfast and could stretch and walk around and . . . well, were so glad we took the train. The mattresses on our train beds were far superior to the crappy mattress we’d been sleeping on in Istanbul, which was at the same time soft and springy, resulting in hard patches of wires (i.e. springs) sticking into your body at random points. There were families in all of the compartments around us and the older couple next door was particularly friendly. The woman kept talking to us, even though we managed to tell her (with the help of our travel guide) that we did not understand Turkish.
There are a good number of words shared in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish so Sonja has been continuously trying to communicate simply by speaking in a weird Persian/Arabic mix-and-match. Surprisingly, it sometimes works; at least she’s finding out which words, usually Arabic-derived, are common in all languages.

As we write this we are in Erzurum, a large city for Eastern Turkey, but not too big at all. We are both very much looking forward to getting to a small place, though, and escaping the crowded sidewalks and anarchic traffic (Andy especially wants to escape the crazy traffic). We walked the streets and weren’t surprised (after Istanbul) to see small jewelry stores lining one street and pots and pans the next. (All merchants of the same ware tend to stick to the same area, so if you need a pair of shoes, you know the street to go to.) We entered a restaurant and astounded the wait staff with our lack of knowledge of the Turkish language, which marked us as foreigners. That’s one thing about Erzurum, at least—we didn’t see any other travelers out and about, a delightful and welcome change after the tourist capital of Sultanahmet in Istanbul. Tomorrow we will head to Trabzon, on the Black Sea coast.

June 19

From Erzurum, we took a lovely bus ride through seemingly endless mountains. Stunning views were accompanied by hair raising (or palm sweating, in Andy’s case) drop-offs alongside the road. We knew we had broken through to the Black Sea coast side when, coming over the top of a pass, everything was suddenly lush green. Small villages dotted the landscape and we reached Trabzon by sunset.

With little information about Trabzon and with few Turkish Lira left (it was Sunday and all the banks were closed), we hopped aboard the first dolmush (shared taxi-bus) that would pick up two strange travelers with huge backpacks. The folks in the city center of Trabzon were entertained as we aimlessly wandered toward the closest street with hotels. Con Otel (pronounced Jon Hotel) looked within our price range and when the old man behind the window excitedly waved us in, we couldn’t resist. The owners here are very, very nice and eager to talk to western travelers. They serve a wonderful cup of chay (tea) and a standard Turkish breakfast . . . although, we do have the feeling that the notes we took from the Mavi Guesthouse’s tour book about the pervasiveness of Russian prostitutes (a.k.a. “natashas”) might be right on the mark, and the gambling parlor directly across the narrow street from our hotel room is a bit invasive. Nonetheless, Trabzon is a wonderful city, perhaps our favorite yet.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Here are some pictures from our the last few days in Istanbul:

We rode trains around town, underground and above ground. Andy got the best haircut ever!! We had a Persian dance party with Nusheen and Nahid (the aforementioned Iranian women Sonja got to practice her Farsi with) and Martina (who is doing her thesis on women and citizenship in Turkey), all of whom are staying in our hostel.

Now we're off to Eastern Turkey, then to Georgia and Azerbaijan. It looks like we have to fly over Turkmenistan because the visas would take too long to get. Unfortunate set of circumstances. Sorry this post is so short. . . it's very late and we have to catch the train early tomorrow morning. We don't know when we'll have access to internet again, so it may be some time before we enter the blogosphere again.

Until then . . .

(P.S. Sorry for the bad blog layout, it's late)

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Yesterday, while our visas for Azerbaijan were being processed, we took the opportunity to visit Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine church constructed around 500 A.D. It was turned into a mosque around 1450 and a museum in the 1920s. The beauty of this structure, filled with both Christian and Muslim mosaics, was awe-inspiring; we'll let the photos try to do the experience some justice.

Our visit to the Grand Bazaar was also well worth it, considering that our feet were already tired from hours of standing. We plan on going back to this mega-souk (Arabic/Turkish/Persian for market) to do some more exploring as we only barely scratched the surface.

But today, today our journey has begun . . . or so says our new friend, the train-station oracle. His name is Ehdu (sp?). We were on our return trip from Levent, where we successfully picked up our Azerbaijan visas, and were checking out the train schedules, a little confused as to which train to take to the Turkmenistan Consulate tomorrow and which train to take East towards Georgia and Azerbaijan. In a small office at the end of the station was a desk marked “Tourist Information.” “Perfect,” we thought, “this may answer some questions.” The gracious Ehdu insisted we sit down and began to assess us with polite conversation. Instead of allowing us to ask our imperative questions, he gauged our life experience (quite accurately) and gave us small glimpses into his own understanding of life, culture, travel, and people. He was interrupted occasionally to answer trivial questions of other tourists (not worthy of his time?), direct people to the whirling dervish show happening nearby (these are on every corner in Istanbul), or to answer the phone or disappear behind a door only to return shortly with a mouth full of food. After quite some time, Ehdu served us tea and then sent us on our way, proclaiming, “Today, your journey begins!” So there you have it. We are still trying to decipher Edhu’s narrative revelation.
The Oracle at the Train Station

Monday, June 12, 2006

Azerbaijan Visa

Awaking a bit earlier than usual, we headed out in search of the Azerbaijan Consulate, sure to be at least one bus ride plus one metro ride away. We have discovered something--Andy is having a harder time without coffee in the morning than Sonja!!! Goes to show that espresso (Sonja's usual morning caffeine dose) does not have that much caffeine, at least not compared to Andy's normal megacup of black joe. (Ha ha to all those friends who thought Sonja would have such a hard time going without her morning espresso. She's doing just fine on Turkish black tea!) Anyway, we left our home base of Sultanahmet for the first time with only an address and vague notion of the neighborhood where the Consulate resides.

The bus took us across the Golden Horn to Taksim Square, pictured here, where we decended into the Metro tunnels to take the train to Levent. Needless to say, there are 4 Levent neighborhoods. We just thought we'd start at the first one. That's as far as our limited knowldedge of Istanbul could take us, for our street maps only include up to Taksim Square. When we got off the Metro, we started wandering in one direction somewhat aimlessly, trying to convince each other to ask someone for directions. Somehow, Sonja, with her traveler's intuition, found the perfect shopkeeper to ask . . . in Turkish! "Nerede Sumbol Sokakki?" (We found out later the syntax was backwards.) Without hesitation, the kind gentleman took us to the back of the shops and pointed down the street, speaking in Turkish the whole time, signaling the directions. We were only two blocks away. In the middle of the residential neighborhood of Levent, between middle class homes and apartments, was a two story house with a guard post and flag out front. We circled around back, found the appropriate desk, waited our turn, filled out some paperwork, paid him some US cash ($40 each), and he told us to come back on Wednesday afternoon to pick up our passports with the visas included. Blind luck.

Andy caught Sonja in a chic pose waiting for the bus back to Sultanahmet.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Another day as tourists! We went for a nice long walk to prepare for tomorrow's search for the Azerbaijan consulate.

View from the roof of the Mavi Guesthouse, where we are staying.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Photo of a small neighborhood market where Sonja bought some strong Turkish tea to alleviate any caffeine withdrawals (although they haven't set in yet).

On day two, we decided to head out for visas but had to ask Ali, the hostel owner/director, for help with directions. He offered to call to check if they were open today and alas, they were not. Oh well, so we need a few days for rest anyways. Over the hostel's complimentary breakfast, we realized that the two older ladies staying in the hostel are Persian and Sonja decided to try out her language skills. It worked! A little, at least. Their English was still better than Sonja's Persian but it was fun to put a little Farsi to use. We discovered that they are here in Istanbul trying to get visas for Europe, Bulgaria is closest, or the states. One of the women's sisters lives in "Irangeles"/"Tehrangeles" but she can't get a US visa. They seem to not be eager to go back to Iran at all and even mentioned that it may be for the better if "Mr. Bush" decides to come to Iran like he has come to Iraq and Afghanistan. We were both a bit suprised at that, although Sonja has heard similar from other Iranians in Honolulu.

Andy is growing a beard (or trying it out as an option at least; it would eliminate the need to shave, but he's pessimistic it'll work and Sonja's not too sure about the whole thing). We had some good Turkish coffee today and found a "sweet!" pastry shop--I think we'll be going there for a mid-morning snack again tomorrow. The waiter was very talkative and teasing and seemed to think that Andy was a lady killer. (Sonja thinks its because of the "unshaven" look.) He tried to read Sonja's coffee grounds, after seeing that she was trying to read them herself, and told us that Andy would find a new girl. We both laughed, thinking that he's just trying to get Sonja to leave the lady killer for a sweet Turkish man. Next, we wandered around the neighborhood, first finding a residential area with locals hanging out and doing business in the streets.

Now we have returned to the hostel to escape the heat and get this blog thing published! And Andy finally gets to watch a little World Cup, too!


After 20 some hours of flying (from Seattle to Toronto to London to Istanbul) we landed safely at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey. The visa line was long, but it moved fast and we paid our 40 dollars to the official who didn't even open our passports to check our identity before inserting the sticker visa. We found our baggage and the the man holding a piece of paper that said "Andrew Rick." We were hurried into an airport shuttle bus with four other young travelers and headed off through traffic to Sultanahmet, the "old" city, i.e. tourist destination. Once we reached the city wall, the shuttle weaved at break-neck speed, free of traffic at last, through the tiny streets as children, women, kittens, and men jumped to the sidewalk and out of the way. As soon as we reached our bed, we crashed, exhausted.

The first day was spent in a bit of a daze. Sultanahmet is a haven for backpackers and tourists. Every other building is a hostel/hotel or tourist agency. Before getting down to business, we decided to be tourists ourselves (we were still too out of it to do any visa hunting, anyways, since that would require going out of walking distance of our hostel). US dollars were exchanged for Turkish lira and then we spent far too much for a cup of espresso. (Thank goodness, however, that they have changed the Turkish lira by eliminating the many unnecessary zeroes. By the old system, one US dollar would equal something like 1,500,000 Turkish lira. Now it is simple--one US dollar equals 1.5 Turkish lira.) Next, we wandered around the grounds of the Topkapi Palace, looking up at the gilded domes and blue and white tiles. We paid extra to see the Harem, which was worth it. It seemed to be the most lavishly decorated; it makes sense since it was the actual "home" part. Some pictures from the Topkapi Palace follow below.