Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Road to Moynaq.

Sometimes things don’t work out quite as planned but then again occasionally the gods are on my side and serendipity takes over. I was having breakfast chatting with the BnB owner in Khiva about border crossings into Turkmenistan. He mentioned that the crossing from Nukus, about four hours North, was the easiest and said he would go and investigate how much it would cost for me to get there. Meanwhile a German man joined the table and as usual the questions began with ‘Where are you from’ and ‘Where are you going.” He replied Nukus but was a little sad because his wife, Julia, was sick and didn’t want to go on to Muynak. Within minutes I had booked a hotel for one night pre border crossing, arranged a car for the three of us to Nukus to drop off Julia at the hotel before Engin and I set off for Muynak. What is this Muynak I hear you ask, actually you may know, but I will come to that.

Another two days in Khiva and early on Saturday morning the taxi came to pick us up and we drove out through the city wall’s big South Gate and headed through the oasis to Urgench before turning North. We crossed over the big river that provides the irrigation for this fertile spot, the Amu Darya, through cotton fields, maize and other cash crops (melons) until the green gave way to the browns of the Karakum Desert. Not the greatest roads but here and there were long, smooth and straight sections being built by, yes; you guessed it, the Chinese. An uneventful journey except for the peculiar ritual of being required to get out of the car outside the gas stations and wait with all the other car passengers before being picked up when the refill was completed. Arriving in Nukus we determined that there were two hotels in town with exactly the same name and of course we went to the wrong one first. Then on arriving at the correct one we found that Engin and Julia were booked into a yurt that poorly, sick Julia was not wild about. We sorted out a room for her from the compassionate reception desk person and leaving Julia to her restful day Engin and I got back in the car.

Another uneventful drive of about three hours that added to the three hour journey from Khiva to Nukus made for something of endurance, but it’s the price you have to pay. The landscape was flat, scrub covered and not green at all for the last fifty miles before Muynak but we finally arrived and there they were just as predicted. Peering over what used to be the cliffs of the Aral Sea we could see the marooned fishing fleet of Muynak below left high and dry years ago as the Sea waters receded. It was one of the saddest things I have ever seen. Back in the 1960s when Uzbekistan was a part of the Soviet Union some genius in the Politburo decided that it would help the country’s economy if the rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, flowing into the Aral Sea were diverted to enable cotton, rice and melon growing in the Karakum Desert. Once one of the world’s four largest lakes it is now only 10% of its former size. The remaining body of water is highly saline and the fish can no longer live in it. Moynaq was a thriving fishing town but when the water receded the fishing industry died and the population mostly left for other parts of Uzbekistan. The Sea shore is now one hundred miles away from Moynaq. Today it almost resembles a ghost town and the residents suffer from diseases caused by the frequent toxic dust storms. The Aral Sea disaster has become known as one of the major man made ecological disasters of all time. Of course the Soviet scientists and academics warned their Government of the likely outcome of their decision but were publicly ridiculed and ignored. Hmm, that sounds rather familiar.

Further reading here if you are interested: http://www.columbia.edu/~tmt2120/introduction.htm

IMG_1168

A valuable load. Firewood.

IMG_1183

Migrating birds heading south. Can anyone identify them?

IMG_1194

The saddest thing…

IMG_1196

Tragic.

IMG_1202

Just think, this was someone’s livelihood.

IMG_1200

Heartbreaking.

IMG_1206

The cliffs of the Aral sea where the waves will crash no more due to Government stupidity.

IMG_1207

Engin walking about.

IMG_1209

The Aral Sea that was.

IMG_1211

The Aral Sea that is.

IMG-7659

Behind me is the extent of the disaster stretching to the horizon and beyond.

IMG_1221

Main street Moynaq.IMG_1216

The memorial to a lost Sea.

Advertisements

Return to Khiva

I mentioned David from Stantours in my last post and he suggested that he could provide the necessary LOIs (Letters of Introduction) allowing me to visit Turkmenistan, albeit briefly. The difficulties of visiting Turkmenistan are well known so I leapt at the chance knowing full well that I could be disappointed at the conclusion of the application process. He told me where to be and when and the border crossing just happened to be quite close to one of my favorite little cities in the world, Khiva, in Uzbekistan. After somewhat reluctantly leaving Bishkek I was excited to abandon the cold for the oasis of Khorzem set between the vast deserts of Karukem and Kyzylkum and return to Khiva. What an unexpected treat.

The first thing that greeted me was when my taxi driver talked about Hiva, as that is how it is pronounced, not Khiva at all. It is also known as Ichon-Qala, Itchan Kala and also Xiva, take your pick. I tried to book the BnB online where I stayed previously but all indications were that it was sold out this being high season in Khiva, October and November are high season hereabouts. Undaunted I phoned Jaloladdin, the manager, and tried to persuade him that I was suitable guest but he wouldn’t budge until I said I was disappointed not seeing his children now that they were growing up. That did it, I clinched a room at the best little BnB in Khiva. Now I sit in probably the best room (#6) that has a little balcony, table and chair allowing me to sit in the late afternoon sun as I write this.

I wrote a blog post about Khiva three years ago so not only will I have to come up with a new title but also mention a few things not discussed back then. I’ll start with melons, yes, melons. Amongst the melon cognoscenti Uzbek melons are the holy grail, there is a melon festival every year here in Khiva, there are special melon houses built to keep the melons fresh during the winter months known as qovunxona, there are endless melon stalls beside the road and families have special melon carving rituals. It is all very melon centric. The best Uzbek melons are grown here in the Khorzem oasis, so the melons here are the crème de la crème and I enjoy slices at every breakfast. I did just a little melon research and there is an Uzbek melon farm just outside Modesto, California, who knew?

Within the walls of Khiva, and magnificent walls they are, people live, trade, and seem to really enjoy life. On the main street there is a musical instrument museum outside of which is a seller of ethnic music CDs and they are played throughout the day, quite loudly. It is such a treat to see the local ladies, and gentlemen, making their way through the town to the big market just outside the walls, stop, get their rhythm down and start dancing together. This is not put on for tourists, who stop and gape, but to my mind just an honest manifestation of joie de vivre. Today I approached the dancing crossroads and some ladies were gyrating in the street and invited me to join in. There I was swaying coyly and there were tourists taking my photo. Oh dear. Look out for me on Instagram going viral! It was all in good humor, everybody laughed but, no hugs, mustn’t touch Muslim women. That’s how it is, take it or leave it.

The money has changed; in fact it changed within the last few weeks. Previously there was the official rate and the black market rate. One arrived at the border crossing and was basically forced to change money at the official rate to buy food or find a taxi. On arriving at a hotel the owner invariably suggested that he could get a better rate under that tree over there and that is what everyone did. The currency denominations were slightly ludicrous and for $100 one ended up with an enormous pile of Som, so big that a large bag was required to carry them around, as there were no large denominations. Now though it has all changed, the black market rate that was is now the official rate and larger denomination bills have been introduced. Even so, the wad of Som received in exchange for a hundred dollars is still quite impressive. I don’t think the repercussions of this major financial overhaul have really taken effect yet; I can buy a plate of Plov, the national dish (rice and veg), for 75 cents (50P), same for a pot of tea, a souvenir fridge magnet or a bread stamp.

Bread stamp? I was asked to say more about Central Asian bread after a photo in the Kyrgyzstan post. Firstly the loaves are called non and if you didn’t see the photo look a bit like a bagel without the hole in the middle. The baker starts with a circular piece of dough and then pounds it with a bread stamp or chekich, a sort of carved handle with metal pins set into it, producing various designs in the bread depending on the layout of the pins. Ckekichs are widely available as souvenirs in various qualities, I bought one in the market for $1.00 but you can pay up to $5.00 at the souvenir stands, or buy one on Etsy apparently, Ha. The fashioned bread is then placed into a clay, wood fired tandyr that is similar to a tandoori oven. The dough is stuck to the side of the tandyr, water is thrown on it and ten minutes later there is your finished non. It is served with breakfast, lunch, dinner and even with tea and like the melons, delicious.

Hope this hasn’t been too wordy but I very much doubt I will be able to upload any photos from here as the Internet is very slow. In Bishkek each photo uploaded in about five seconds, as I had a router in my room, ecstasy, but here, not so much. I’ll be back with tales of The Door to Hell, Ashgabat and Merv. Until then, au revoir.

PS. Photos finally uploaded from Bukhara.

IMG_0997

Market stall holders.

IMG_1000

Sweets, candy and biscuits in the market.

IMG_7548

The statue of Al-Khorezmiy who invented algebra, the decimal point and algorithms.

IMG_1036

View from BnB rooftop.

IMG_1045

Off to the market….

IMG_7520

Kalta Minor minaret.

IMG_7606

Wedding party procession moving through the town.

IMG_7607

Bread oven.

IMG-7557

Bread in oven.

IMG_1108

The colors were dazzling.

IMG_1111

Melons, melons, melons.

IMG_1141

Such glamour.

A week in Kyrgyzstan.

A week in Kyrgyzstan and it really isn’t enough time but winter is coming, in fact last night it snowed and there is much snow on the mountains visible in the south from my room. I took the weekend to recover from the travel day and set about investigating how to see lake Issyk Kul. The lake is probably the biggest tourist draw in all of Kyrgyzstan and is the second largest Alpine lake in the world after lake Titicaca at around 5,000 feet. Hiking and winter sports are popular and maybe someone will remember the climbers from Seattle I met last time I was here. As an aside: one of the reasons to come to Bishkek, the capital, is to obtain visas for other countries in Central Asia and I have been doing that. With more time I would have taken a marshrutka, a mini bus that plies a particular route and is ubiquitous in these parts, but as time was tight and with embassy visits scheduled I found a car with driver. This sounds a bit Rajish and extravagant but it really is not, I’ve done it in other countries and it is a good way to get around if one’s route is not served any other way.

Off and away then into the Tian Shan mountains, which translated means Mountains of Heaven, on the main highway which parallels the Kazak border for a considerable distance. Leaving the border the road climbs and climbs but it is an easy drive because the Chinese have replaced the old road to facilitate their trade routes, naturally, and it is a smooth dual carriageway all the way to the lake. A spur turns off just before the lake taking the trucks south to Naryn and the Chinese border. Our road deteriorated somewhat as we set off to circle the lake, much bouncing and swerving to avoid the worst of the potholes. The views to our right were absolutely fabulous, peaks and ranges as far as we could see, all snow capped and the blue lake waters on our left. Very picturesque it was. There have been attempts to restore or at least preserve Kyrg culture and so the first night was spent at a yurt camp on the lakeshore. Did I say picturesque? The people of Kyrgyzstan are very proud of their nomadic past and yurts are an important feature of the nomadic way of life. The national flag is an image of the top vent of a yurt, yes really, have a look.

We were advised that some young people from the local youth cultural center were going to demonstrate some of the traditional nomadic skills. We were treated to eagle hunting; I had an eagle, hooded, standing on my arm. There were two birds that turned up in a rather beaten up old car, one in the trunk (boot) and one on the passenger seat. These two big birds of prey glided and swooped around and over the low foothills; it was a privilege to witness it. They caught lures dragged around by the youths from the cultural center, some phony, some not (!) and were rewarded for each capture. Then it was the turn of the archers who demonstrated their warrior skills. I was persuaded to try and shall we say, my warrior days are numbered.

On around the lake to the major town in the Oblast (county) called Karakol. Founded in Russian times it features hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs, all the trappings of a winter sports center. There was a fine little museum that featured some relics from earlier times including pieces from the Scythians, a nomadic tribe that has caught my interest. They were reputedly from Mongolia and again were nomadic, had no written language and all they left to us are burial mounds, some of which I spotted outside Karakol. The Russians are frantically excavating their remaining Scythian burial mounds because climate change is melting the permafrost and any existing artifacts are being destroyed. Interestingly the British Museum is currently hosting a massive Scythian exhibition in London at the moment.

Another trip completed after the long drive back to Bishkek. All embassy visits completed and if you are interested I can really recommend David at Stantours. He will issue LOIs, Letters of Introduction, for you that makes the whole visa application process for countries like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan easier and much less stressful. Give him a call at his office in Almaty.

IMG_0735

Typical view in Issyk Kul region.

IMG_0754

Lakeshore Issyk Kul.

IMG_0758

Yurt camp.

IMG_0743

Just another hazard on the road.

IMG_0786

Yours truly, with eagle.

IMG_0796

Young man and his eagle.

IMG_7313

IMG_7350

Small warrior.

IMG_7364

Small warrior with bird.

IMG_0810

Eagle in flight, if you look closely.

IMG_0821

Was the eagle posing for photos?

IMG_0859

Eagle in car, no seat belt!

IMG_0903

Scythian burial mounds?

IMG_0923

Waiting for the bus.

IMG_0956

The bread is very interesting in these parts.

IMG_7389

This is the flag.

Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan

Here I am racing along on the main road from Almaty to Bishkek (Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan) in a taxi believe it or not. My good wife, Julia, bless her, had a minor fit a couple of years ago when I walked across the border into Tajikistan, quite justified actually. She made me promise not to walk across any more borders so I haven’t, but did sneak one from Israel to Jordan. I could have taken a mini bus, or marshrutka, for this trip but it would involve walking about a mile across no mans land and I would break my promise. I found a company called Kiwitaxi who for a very reasonable rate will take you from A to B, door to door, actually less than a taxi from Marin to the airport, or Winchester to Heathrow, for this ride. So I’ll live blog as I go.

I’m on the steppe which is kind of romantic though a bit featureless and way in the distance on my left, to the south, are the Lli Alatau mountains (part of the northern Tian Shan range) and they have snow on them. I had always thought of the steppe as covered in swishing long green grass, almost right, grass yes, but it has been over a hundred (38C) degrees here every day for five months so its rather brown or “golden’ like California before the rains start. (Quick aside: Here I am miles out in the Kazakh steppe and my phone rings! It’s Julia from California! She must be psychic.) We just stopped so that Mucheed, driver, can imbibe a shot of the national drink, fermented mare’s milk (Kumis) with bits in, no thanks, I’ll stick with the pink stuff!

The steppe is actually rather fabulous, it’s so vast and I can see it stretching away into the haze in the distance with the occasional village far, far away. Farming seems to be what they do here; there are sheep, the occasional cow, goats, horses (sorry about that) and much hay baling of the swishing grass. If you have passed the time with the Great Russian authors and poets you must agree they did a much better job of waxing lyrical about the steppes than me. Perhaps we should just leave it to them.

Of course sometimes things don’t actually work out as planned and today the border was closed to vehicle traffic. Sergei met us on the Kazakh side and then helped with my bags across the very short border crossing. Emigration took about a minute, immigration a little less and he had parked his car very close to the barrier which meant leaving one country and arriving in another took about five minutes, there was no sign of Customs. It was an almost pleasant experience.

IMG_0685

Mountains.

IMG_0700

The rolling steppe.

 

Outings in Georgia.

There’s lots of famous scenery to be seen around the world and up there with the best must be Scotland, the Rocky Mountains, Santorini etc, but why is the North Caucasus of Georgia never mentioned? I took an early morning tour out of Tbilisi and headed north through the usual car sales strips, the out of town Malls until the countryside began with a rather charming banner across the road announcing ‘Happy Journey.’ There were more churches on crags to be seen and after an hour or so we began to climb, climb I should add out of the 110 degree (43C) heat of the plains into the cooler mountain air. First stop was at Ananuri, a village beside a reservoir featuring a castle containing two churches dating back three or four hundred years. But what a lovely name, Ananuri, almost as charming as the name of the local currency, the Lari with a trill on the R. It was crowded in the parking lot and the power was out so no tea and off up the Georgian Military Highway we went, headed for Russia.

Up and up, above the clouds were the hang gliders soar; it was all very, um, photogenic. We passed through Alpine like villages set about with chalets and condos, the occasional ski lift, obviously winter sports are big business in the winter. To the top of the pass at 2,400 meters (8,000 ft) and down into the pretty town of Kazbegi strangely renamed Stepantsminda, but nobody calls it that. There was an odd hint of India as we drove into town, cows in the road, wandering cows, cows sleeping all over. I asked but all I got was shrug. It is clearly a centre for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts but what struck me most were the trucks pouring through to and from Russia. The wait to clear customs at the border was obviously lengthy and there were trucks parked beside the road for miles and miles, waiting. I saw British trucks, Spanish, French, Italian; it was quite extraordinary, think of the mileage. The most famous ‘church on a crag’ in Georgia is just outside Kazbegi and at 2200m or over 7,000 feet you have to wonder, how did they build it all up there.

The next tour that the amiable Sofia and Khatia arranged for me was to the old capital of Georgia, Mtskheta, it’s got a ch in it somewhere, not too far out of Tbilisi and features, yes, and you’ve guessed it, “a church on a crag.” Sorry about all the churches but as Georgia was the first country to adopt Christianity they do feature rather largely in any description. The cragged one, Jvari, is reputed to be the first Georgian church and stands high over the plain with fabulous views over the old city and the confluence of a couple of rivers. I managed to squeeze my visit in between the coach loads and my guide did what he did at all the churches we visited, went off and lit candles. Fine with me. Down the mountain to the old city where it was incredibly hot and there were many pauses for water. There is a cathedral in Mtskheta, a huge affair containing within its interior two more churches, I don’t think I have seen that before. Interesting though to think this has been a Christian center since 327.

I had an enquiry about the political situation in the Caucuses and replied that it is complicated. For a start when I was in Batumi I befriended a large holidaying family from Baku the grandmother of which was an English teacher. Lots of friendly chats with grandmother translating for all the different ages, wine flowed and food shared until she asked me where I was going next. Armenia I replied upon which she burst into tears “You must not go, they are killing our people.” No arguing with that so I didn’t go to Armenia. Its all about Nagorno-Karaback which is either Armenian or Azeri and there is an ongoing war to determine which. I didn’t judge it expedient to try and learn more from the grandmother. As far as I can determine it was Azeri and is now Armenian. One of the results of this is that there is a tiny area of old Azerbaijan isolated in Armenia and hard up against the Iranian border called Naxcivan with no way in or out except by plane. Images of the Berlin Airlift of the late 40s spring to mind and I simply cannot figure out how it manages to exist, but its there and it exists. The Azeri authorities are very sensitive about this and if you have an Armenian stamp in your passport they wont let you into Azerbaijan. At the border from Georgia the Azeri the guards went through my bag looking for Armenian products, I had none.

Then of course there are South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which were at one time part of Georgia but are now under the control of Russia. There are terrible stories about these two breakaway regions and the 1991 wars were particularly brutal. The UK Foreign Office and US State Department do not recommend travel to either and I wasn’t going to challenge their recommendations but I did glimpse South Ossetia from the train outside Gori, the birthplace of Stalin.

I’m a big fan of Georgia now and wholeheartedly endorse it as a worthwhile destination for its food, wine and fabulous scenery. Of course you could do worse than staying at the Penthouse Hotel on Metekhi street and do say hi to Sofia and Khatia from me.

IMG_0371

Tbilisi Old Town by day.

IMG_0399

They have the best balconies in Tbilisi.

IMG_0423

These are the famous sulfur baths.

IMG_0445

Spectacular Tbilisi.

IMG_0457

Ananuri.

IMG_0484

North Caucasus Mountains.

IMG_0490

More mountains.

IMG_0486

Trucks lining up to enter Russia.

IMG_0491

The Tsminda Sameba Church, Kazbegi.

IMG_0495

Cows!

IMG_0538

Jvari Church, Mtskheta.

IMG_0544

Here is Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta.

IMG_0593

Church on crag plus man on horse.FullSizeRender

I like the view from the river.

IMG-6750 (1)

Thank you.

 

A Trip to Tbilisi.

Georgia in the South Caucasus is a country I was only just aware of,, but after meeting someone, only one, who had been there it seemed a place I should visit. A young woman, Haibin Zhang from Beijing, travelled on her own through each of the Caucasus countries, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan and had no qualms about safety; in fact she was very enthusiastic. From Turkey, where I left you last, there was a bus from Trabzon to Batumi and early one morning I boarded and set off for the border. Although the bus indicated that it was going to Batumi it in fact didn’t, it only went as far as the border where we were all removed into the noontime heat and joined the massive line (queue) to cross into Georgia. It was fairly gruesome, as the crowd had no idea of an orderly line and burly border guards with long sticks tried to keep everyone from spilling into the parking area. That took about four hours. It was horrible. Then the usual arrival in a new country routine of changing money and finding a way into the nearest town. Accomplished that and found a taxi to my hotel where my room was on the 8th floor and no elevator (lift). It wasn’t a very good day!

I was warned about Batumi and the warnings were correct. It is one of those Russian Black Sea resorts that one hears about and I resolved to leave as soon as I could find a way out. There is a very fine train from Batumi to Tbilisi, the capital city, and for just a few dollars I went on my way. Dropped off at my hotel in a sort of alley I looked around for reception but there was only an elevator with indications that I should go to the 4th floor. Up I went to be greeted by Khatia and Sofia who seemed to run the place in a very efficient and friendly fashion. My room had a balcony with views over the old city; floodlit churches perched on crags and an old castle. What more could I ask for, there was even a wine shop on the ground floor!

I really took to Tbilisi, its one of those cities where if you stop to look at the map people come up and offer to help, even if their English is not great. Did you know that Georgia was the first country in the world to convert to Christianity? Neither did I. The food is rather unique and with respect for vegetarians who might read this I won’t go into some of the more popular dishes but the National Dish is Khachapuri Adjaruli. A canoe shaped loaf of bread about a foot long and two inches thick arrives from what appears to be a tandoori oven or tone (with an accent on the E) filled with melted cheese, bubbling, then butter is added and an egg is broken into the middle of the sizzling mass. You eat it by dipping the crust into the goop and try not to think of your lactose intolerant friends. It was just delightful to see children racing home from the bakery with their big bag of canoes in time for dinner.

I’ll mention the wine but should write a whole chapter on it. There was wine making in Georgia in the Neolithic age 8,000 years ago and the quality has been improving ever since. I have read that before tourism the Georgian Immigration officer would stamp your passport and give you a bottle of wine; this is no longer the case, at the Turkish border anyway. Everywhere you go there is wine, you can even have it for breakfast. Sweet wine is popular as is orange wine but I stuck to a very robust dry red and enjoyed every evening.

My last blog was rather long so I will stop here and try to write again on my excursions in the country. There is a lot to see even if some of the sites are hard to pronounce. I’m thinking of Mtskheta for instance…

IMG_0415

Church on crag.

IMG_0426

Churches on crags.

IMG_0427

And yes, I rode the aerial tramway to the top.

IMG_0551

The famous clock outside the equally famous marionette theatre in Tbilisi.

IMG_0591

River, bridge, church on crag (and seagull) Tbilisi.

IMG_0420

And again.

IMG-6692

Tbilisi Old City at dusk.

IMG-6950

Freedom Bridge, Tbilisi.

IMG_0369

A sunset.

 

On the Road Again.

I’ve had a busy two weeks and now an opportunity to collect my thoughts as I take this bus ride from Cappadocia to Ankara and from there a flight to Trabzon on the Black Sea. Various family members have been pressuring me to visit Cappadocia and so as I was in the area, as it were, and on the way east I thought why not. I should have flown from Istanbul to one of the local airports, either Nevsehir or Keyseri, but being a train enthusiast I took the train. Bit of a mistake as Istanbul’s main train station is closed indefinitely which means a long Metro ride or traffic-ridden taxi to the station at Pendik though there is a ferry from Eminonu which might have been the best option. Excellent train to Ankara with speeds up to 250 kmh it only took four hours, there was a café car and the loos were clean. Arriving in Ankara there was a quick and cheap taxi ride to the bus station for the bus to Goreme in Cappadocia (tickets at desk#50). The buses are becoming more like airplanes with seat back screens for movies, a steward who serves tea and sandwiches plus reclining seat backs. Not too painful.

Arrived In Goreme (Guh Reh Meh) in darkness, found taxi, delivered to hotel for about $2.00 and the main man greets me with a ‘what would you like?’ Shortly afterwards a bottle of the local red appeared and after a couple of glasses I went to bed. Morning came at around 5.00am and there was an intermittent roaring noise above me and I immediately thought, dragons! Grabbed some clothes and went outside ready to do my St George act (kidding) and there was Goreme in daylight with all its fantastic Fairy Chimneys and above were hot air balloons, lots of them, forty or fifty, I didn’t count. What an amazing sight to start the day. The Fairy Chimneys of Cappadocia are now world famous, I’m sure you have seen photos but just in case – they were formed over the ages from deposits from two local volcanoes being eroded away leaving the local sandstone, protected by a layer of basalt, which the local people have carved away to create storage areas, flocks and herd shelters and now, hotel rooms. I read somewhere that the landscape resembles a Salvador Dali fever dream. True.

It gets better! There are underground cities! Nine or ten stories deep! The guide warned that with high blood pressure, a weak heart, claustrophobia or a nervous disposition one shouldn’t descend. I did. It was truly evocative. Originally dug by the Hittites in the eleventh century who found raids from invaders tiresome (Persians, Alexander the Great etc), they would dive down under the ground at the first sign of attack and close the door with massive circular stones. Unbelievably these ’doors’ have spy holes to see who has come knocking, also suitable for shooting arrows through. It is estimated that 2,000 people could live in the city for up to six months, but imagine the smell! There was a winery and kitchen area, little caves for a family and on the bottom floor there was access to an underground river. We crouched and almost crawled down and down and it got colder and colder and we all got dirtier and dirtier. I banged my head a few times but all in all it was a high point of Cappadocia for me.

If all that isn’t enough there’s more! 12th Century churches. Lots of them. When Christianity was outlawed by the Roman Empire many Christians fled to this area which with its underground cities, remoteness and hidden valleys provided a reasonably safe haven. Hewing away the soft rock they created very tiny churches, some holding only ten people. The frescoes they daubed on the wall are still visible though not in a very good state of repair but they are there nonetheless. Some of the frescoes are being restored by, if I understood it correctly, an Italian University. I’m not sure if this is a great idea but what do I know.

Cappadocia then, what a great place and I’m so grateful to Nat and Erin for keeping up the pressure on me to visit. The local wine is drinkable, the food is abundant, accommodation is widely available from one to five stars, it is rumored that there are over 200 places to stay in the tiny town of Goreme. I wonder therefore why the place wasn’t packed with North Americans and Western Europeans. It wasn’t. I met Indians, locals, Chinese and Central Asians but no Westerners. Perhaps it has something to do with Iraq and Syria being just down the road?

Moving on, well backwards actually, before Cappadocia I spent a week in Istanbul which is as exotic as ever. I wised up a little and bought an ‘Istanbulkart’ which allows one to travel on buses, trams, Metro and ferries and with the aid of Google maps and its timetable widget I easily navigated the city and ended up in some rather “interesting’ parts! After a few days the shopkeepers in my neighborhood stopped trying to sell me carpets and many a happy tea break I took on a stool on the sidewalk. I went back to the old favorites, The Hagia Sophia and Sultan Ahmet (Blue) Mosques, Topkapi Palace. Took a ride up the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. Ate leisurely meals and went to bed early, got up early and walked the streets in the early morning before it got hot. Again I have to say I got lots of the look that said ‘Goodness a Westerner’, but I felt quite safe everywhere I went, there are soldiers with large guns patrolling and even the occasional tank! Maybe its Erdogan but lets not go there just now.

Before I go I have to tell what happened before that. I went to Prague. There was a Montessori Congress there and both Julia and Sophie (niece) were booked in, so I kind of tagged along. What a beautiful city and we all agreed that it really isn’t like anywhere else, though Vienna and Edinburgh were mentioned. We rode around on trams, frequented cafes, went for a cruise on the river, visited castles and cathedrals, just generally had a great tourist visit. Shame that the Most Beautiful Library in the World was closed but just another reason to visit again.

Thank you ladies.

IMG_9374

The famous Charles Bridge in Prague.

IMG_6200

The ‘Fred and Ginger’ Building, Prague.

IMG_0072

Ceiling of entrance to Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

IMG_0090

Look at that rug!

IMG_6355

Trying for the arty shot….

IMG_0132

Balloon rising.

IMG_0144

This one came straight at me.

IMG_0158

Deep underground at Kaymakli.

IMG_0184

Fairy Chimneys of Cappadocia.

IMG_0250

Fascinating.

IMG_0273

The Man, Woman and Child.