Tag Archive: Hitch-hiking


Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik! “A place that will be at the front your memory for weeks to come”. Dubrovnik! “The pearl of the Adriatic’. One of the most prominent tourist destinations on the Adriatic, one of the many astonishing places on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites… Having read so much about how its dazzling streets would remain in our memories for days to come, we had very high expectations when we eventually arrived. “Eventually” as in it turns out that outside of Turkey, the shortest hitches have become the hardest.

Dubrovnik is lovely, but we have to say, not really up to all the hype. The main problem with the town, in fact, is all the hype. Foreigners (of the moneyed type) are increasingly buying up the Old Town, and while some locals do still live there, the area is clearly tourist orientated. Rather, “tourist-oriented” is an understatement. Everything in the Old Town is focused around tourists – the sights, the restaurants, the pizza slices, everything has a tourist-oriented price tag, and there are hundreds of tourists there ready to buy. So while the place, with its marble streets and tiny back alleys certainly has a charm, you have to muster the ability to see past a lot of stuff to really appreciate it.

We only had one full day there, which is probably enough, and spent the first half on a pebble beach to avoid the height of the daily guided-tourist influx. Similarly to Montenegro, cruise liners seem to think it’s their right to take up the bay and so instead of having a view of the islands, we had a view of eurgh. When you swam, you could even hear the noise of the monstrosity. On the plus side, it was some of the clearest water that Lucie has ever swum in, and she was thrilled when the fish came to dart around in the water next to her.

Split

On the other hand Split, the second largest city in Croatia, exceeded all of our expectations. It is a very lived-in city unlike Dubrovnik which is much more of a holidayed-in city, with an almost perfect old town and vibrant marketplace. One afternoon we took a free walking tour around the Diocletian Palace. The enormous palace is the retirement pad for “one the most legendry Roman emperors” (that’s what the guide claims), Diocletian, who has a rags to riches story. Never destined for more than farming, he managed to claw his way through the ranks to General, and one day was appointed emperor. That’s the story anyway. The longer version has boars and prophecies and hand-to-hand combat, as you would expect from this sort of life story… He was also the first emperor to retire from emper-ing.

One of the answers for why a retired emperor needed such a fortified palace (the complex has a huge wall surrounding it on all sides), is that he was harbouring one of the first textile factories in Europe. As the palace was situated a little south of Salona, which was one of the Roman’s largest and most fortified cities, Split was very well protected, which is one reason why so much of it still stands. Another reason for this is that Diocletian was scared of earthquakes and so ordered that the walls be built in a way which allowed the rocks to move slightly in the case of tremors. This left the palace much better off than the Old Town in Dubrovnik, which was almost entirely wiped out by the 1667 earthquake, one of the worst to date since records began.

In fact, Split remained pretty well protected throughout its earlyish history. Following the decline of the Romans, the Avars and Slavs (or “barbarians”, as our guide called them) attempted to lay claim to it having conquered Salona. However, because of the handy sea by which supplies could enter the town, the attackers were unable to starve the residents into submission as they had elsewhere. So they made Split an offer it couldn’t refuse. Officially, it would be part of their empire, but they would have autonomy. So Split was protected both by the declining Romans and by this new power, yet they had autonomy from both.

It turns out that Diocletian also had a thing against Christians, primarily as he saw himself as a god and they didn’t. He therefore murdered thousands of them – more than any other emperor. After his death, the Christians came to power in the area and got their revenge the only way they could – by turning Diocletian’s mausoleum into a church. Burn. They also destroyed as many artifacts documenting his existence as they possibily could to attempt to erase him from history.

Our guide seemed more interested in the Romans than really any other period, so every other period was much briefer, and the 20th Century was basically covered in a couple of sentences – “and then Yugoslavia…”.

The rest of our time in Split was very similar to that of Kotor and Dubrovnik. Sun, sea, walking and eating great lunches sourced from the local market. We also went to Trogir where we did exactly the same…

Zagreb

Maybe it’s just the fact that we are, by now, kind of tired of sight-seeing and trying to find the interesting parts of otherwise uneventful or uninspiring places, but Zagreb is probably the most boring capital we’ve been to on this trip (other than Pristina which we are trying to forget about). It has lots of galleries, but you have to pay for all of them; plus our CouchHost’s partner was a curator and thus clued-up on this sort of thing, and she had no suggestions to make for us while we were there. Our plan to walk up the mini mountain near the city was thwarted by the weather, so we ended up going to see Pirates of the Carribean 4 in 3D(!), which was truly terrible, following this with a mediocre gypsy swing gig and drinking mediocre croatian beer. Croatia isn’t famous for its beer. Now we know why.

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It’s as if, as we left Kosovo behind, we cut loose the black cloud that had been metaphorically and literally following us. So we had gone from Bosnia to Serbia to Kosovo in four days, and on the fifth we headed to Albania. Being in Albania was probably the closest thing to being back in India since we left, in terms of how we were treated as travellers there. When we stopped to ask whether the road we were on was the right one towards our destination, we were suddenly surrounded by an entire circle of curious men and boys – people were attempting to be helpful of course, but in a way where it’s really not providing much help… Hitch-hiking doesn’t seem to be understood, either, and so everyone who stopped for us would ask for some money – one man suggested 100 dollars to go about 100km. We said we would catch the bus! The roads were the next and completely contradictory bizzarerie – absolutely pristine. After the shoddy state of Kosovo’s roads, which were in desperate need of some additional tarmac, these were even more surprising. Holes have been blown in mountains and perfect asphalt has been laid, yet there are almost no cars to traverse it…

We headed to Lake Skodra, half of which belongs to Montenegro – we aren’t sure if there is a borderline down the middle…We spent some time enjoying the lack of stress while gazing out over the city and lake from one of Albania’s many famous castles.

The following morning, we headed off to Montenegro – our 5th country in 6 days. Hitching provided some of the most scenic spots we’ve held a cardboard sign at so far.

Unfortunately we lost patience with hitching after 3 lifts in lots of hours not really taking us very far at all, and we caught a bus for the final leg of the way to Kotor.

Kotor has a magnificent Old Town right next to a beautiful Bay. The crap side of this is that abominably enormous cruise liners land their humungous selves in the Bay in the mid-morning, spewing hundreds of organised tourists into Kotor’s tiny alleyways, as well as trashing the view in the Bay. If you can bring yourself to ignore the latter, you can take yourself off to a ‘concrete swimming platform’ for a few hours. This sounds grim, but is in actual fact quite pleasurable, and the only way to lie next to the bay and swim.

During the day the fortifications cost however much, but once night falls they are free to climb, so after dark we went up the 1350 stairs, shielding our eyes from the flood-lights. The view over the town and bay was worth every step.

We basically spent these fews days relaxing and enjoying the sunshine which finally decided to show its face.

Lucie’s terrible idea

Having waited at the side of the Sarajevo road for 3 hours, we eventually caught a ride back to Belgrade with the people that had picked us up on our way to Sarajevo. Given our next destination was meant to be Dubrovnik, this made little sense. In fact, we had turned down a lift going almost all the way to the Croatian town. What happened?

Throughout our trip, our intention had been to go from Sarajevo to Dubrovnik, perhaps via Mostar. This made sense. However, we were also keen to meet up with PEDAL, a group of people (some of whom were our friends) attempting to cycle from the UK to the West Bank promoting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign (http://www.bdsmovement.net/) amongst various other things. Frustratingly, this idea seemed less and less likely as although we were going to be in the same places, we weren’t going to be in them at the same times. But then one of our mates in the group suggested we meet them in Prishtine, Kosovo. Lucie somehow persuaded me that this was a good idea. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see them, but rather that it practically made no sense. If you look at our GoogleMap (http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&ll=37.0625,-95.677068&spn=59.249168,135.263672&z=4) and zoom in on the Balkans you’ll almost certainly agree.

So we tried to get there. Having failed to hitch from Sarajevo to Prishtine, instead we headed back to Belgrade where we were met by the father of our CouchHost from before, who offered us home made rakia and seats in front of the tennis – a welcome break from over 12 hours of travelling (or at least trying to travel…). The following day we belatedly arrived in the Kosovan capital, where it started to rain the moment we got out of the car. No matter, we would check our email and surely there would be a message from the PEDAL crew telling us where to meet them as they hadn’t told us where they were going to be after a 2pm meeting in a place with an unfindable address. No email. Perfect. So after attempting to call, email, online text-message and a while of generally waiting around, we checked into a massively over-priced hotel. How the hotel was able to charge that much is beyond me, especially given that Kosovo is the poorest country in Europe.

Eventually we met with PEDAL and they told us all about what they were going to be doing the following day and hoped that we would get involved – we were given directions, buses to catch, and we went off to our separate sleeping places. Unfortunately, we turned up to the agreed meeting point the following day and only 2 of the 20-strong PEDAL crew were there. Turns out that the rest of them had gone to a totally different place. Or at least that’s what we assume happened, no-one’s told us, and the 2 had no idea… The meeting spot (the one we’d gone to anyway) was a community centre run by the Balkan Sunflowers (http://www.balkansunflowers.org/) where Roma children go and are helped with their homework, taught Serbian – which most of them couldn’t speak when they went to school, which is problematic as most are taught in Serbian – and generally entertained. This experience was unexpected, but nonetheless welcome. The Roma community that lives in Kosovo, as we had learned from the end of a film we managed to catch the night before called Never Back Home (http://romawood.wordpress.com/), is pretty screwed, as they are in many other countries. The village that we went to lives in the shadow of a coal-fired power station – they breathe its dust every day which has led to 90% rates of cancer in the inhabitants. Despite the fact that surely this should mean they get compensation, they don’t even get electricity 24 hours a day. Given that we were only there for a few hours, we didn’t get to learn much more, but this was certainly enough.

While we were getting really annoyed by this point, we also learnt that we could have ended up in prison in Dubai for coming in with prescription painkillers (for my knee), as one of the PEDAL crew had been… He told us how he ended up in a Dubai jail for three months for having codeine with a prescription, while others were in for anything from 30kg of heroin to poppy seeds in their chest hair. No joke. Things could always be worse I guess.

So our hopes of meeting up with PEDAL and finding out what they were doing, discussing their ideas, etc, turned into an unexpected education into the suffering of the Roma community in Kosovo, and the stupidities of Dubai border controls, but no PEDAL.

The following day we left, as no-one had been in touch with us at all. It was raining, as it had done throughout our time in Prishtine, we were trying to hitch and no-one was picking us up… This became the absolute last straw. You know you’re at breaking point when sounds come out of your mouth that you’ve never made before, when you want to rip the face off some arsehole who insists on you paying over a pound for 2 minutes of a phone call, or when Lucie almost bursts into tears when the guy on the bus we eventually decided to take offers you both a coffee. It had whipped cream in it…

And so we escaped Kosovo, and probably the worst three days of our trip due to the sheer helpless frustration of the entire experience (with the added knowledge that we could have just gone to Dubrovnik and that would have made a whole lot more sense), were over.

With Marija’s enthusiastic streak for hitch-hiking running through us, we decided to head from Novi Sad to Sarajevo by thumb. Five hitches in, we were only 50km away from our starting point – not good. That’s not even ‘not a good start’, that’s just not good. Luckily, as has occasionally been the case on our trip, we got lucky just when things were looking really crap. We got a lift all the way to Sarajevo, or so we thought. A few hours in, they suggested we take a ‘thirty minute detour’ to Srebrenica. Thirty minutes turned into five hours. Literally. We got so lost at one point that the driver had to genuinely ask the border guard whether we were entering Bosnia or Serbia… Nonetheless, the detour was worth arriving somewhat later than expected.

Before we arrived in Srebrenica, our knowledge about what happened there was severely limited and while that is still the case, we now know a little more. Srebrenica and the area around it is the site of the largest mass murder in Europe since WWII, and one of the UN’s notorious failures. The civilian Muslim community at Srebrenica, fearing ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serbs, fled their homes and sought refuge at the nearby UN base of Potočari. Having declared a “safe-area” to the besieged Potočari, for some reason still unclear to us, the UN stopped protecting these people, refusing entry to many and kicking others out of the compound. In effect, the UN had helpfully rounded up thousands of Bosnians for the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS). Serb forces were somehow allowed to enter the refugee camps where all of the ‘men’ (some as young as twelve) were separated from the women and children. What followed was the massacre of over 8000 Muslim Bosnian men and boys. They were buried in mass graves which sometimes they had to dig for themselves, and many of which are yet to be discovered. Here is a witness account of the massacre from the Guardian archives – http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/26/ratko-mladic-arrested-srebrenica-massacre

The Memorial and graveyard in Potočari is a hillside covered in thin white headstones. The green markers are for more recently buried bodies. There is an ‘open-plan’ mosque at the entrance, which seems strangely modern and out of place in the countryside. Squares of white marble show thousands of names, and, separated from the rest of the stones is a cross for the only Christian buried at the site. It was quiet, peaceful, difficult to imagine thousands of people clamouring at the entrance to the compound opposite over fifteen years ago.

If you follow the industrial-looking track on the other side of the road in between old factory buildings, you find yourself in what was the UN compound. Once you have found the man with the key, he will let you into a small room to watch a video about the massacre. Some of the most awfully memorable moments are of the women weeping for joy as the UN makes its (in)famous declaration of safety, and of the general who engineered the massacre (Ratko Mladic) openly stating to a television camera that today would be the day that they would take revenge on the Muslims. One woman talks about how she goes to the various graveyards regularly in the hope of finally finding her husband’s name on a marker. A man explains that he was working in the compound and was forced to tell his own family to leave with everyone else – he hasn’t seen them since.

Afterwards you can walk around inside the empty building, past maps of mass graves, communications between Mladic and his subordinates, and personal items belonging to the victims which are accompanied by descriptions of the people – how their wife remembers them, what they were doing when they were last seen…

It wasn’t what we had been expecting from our day when we started hitching towards Bosnia.

From the harrowing experience of Srebrenica we then got lost for several hours to the point where we were no longer appreciating the ‘scenic’ness, but eventually we reached Sarajevo. Throughout our time there it was hard to forget that over 10,500 Sarajevans died and the city was besieged for months on end – a street was even nicknamed ‘Sniper Alley’ as it provided a prime opportunity for distant shooters to pick off civilians trying to cross to safety. From the fortress that gives a superb view over the whole city you can see various graveyards with the same slim white grave markers all around the town. This somehow makes the majesty of the city even grander, particularly as now the churches and mosques stand side-by-side once again. The bustly, beautiful Old Town has been very well restored, and provides the perfect place to relax in the sunshine and enjoy a ‘Bosnian’ (read: Turkish) coffee complete with Turkish delight. Away from the centre, a path stretches alongside the river where locals rollerblade and people come to lead climb the craggy rockfaces.

Unfortunately, we were only able to spend one full day there as we intended to hitch to Prishtine the following day. This turned out to be an abysmal idea, but we’ll come to that later…

Bulgaria and Serbia

Given a combination of the weather and our limited time, Bulgaria will probably not feature highly on our list of memorable places. Plovdiv, the second biggest city in Bulgaria, looked like it would be a lovely place to wander around in the sunshine, and we made this observation as we peered through the driving rain. Consequently, we spent a considerable amount of time watching movies back-to-back on our host’s 44″ screen TV while he was at work… Sometimes on a 9 month long trip you have to have those days. Incidentally, Milk is a fantastic film and Sean Penn is brilliant. Our host was a strange man who seemed to live entirely off chocolate bars and who chatted almost non-stop from the time he got home to the time we escaped to bed. He did, however, introduce us to Ken Robinson who speaks about the destructive nature of the education system and the way it destroys creative and independent thought in children so that they will be willing workers in later life…

Sofia was virtually as uneventful as Plovdiv, and this wasn’t helped by the fact that we only stayed for one night. We managed to fit in a visit to the stunning Alexander Nevsky cathedral in the centre of Sofia – it is modelled on Russian churches, and made Josh re-evaluate his previous judgment that mosques are often really interesting whereas churches are generally boring. The square in the centre of town was filled with bear statues which had been decorated by artists from all the different countries which are recognised by the UN (basically everywhere) to represent ‘Unity’. There were designs which ranged from the relatively tasteful to the standardly stereotyped – a bear dressed as a leprechaun, guess which country… The night consisted of our hitting various eclectic bars, one of which featured music videos for Korn, the Bloodhound Gang and Outkast. A quality evening’s entertainment.

From Sofia we took a train which reminded us of being in India, where stray dogs can run faster than the train, to Belgrade. It was supposed to take 7 hours and arrived 3 hours late…

Belgrade is not a particularly interesting city – rather it seems that people go there for the night life which is basically what we experienced. Food and booze were the features of our stay: there is at least one place in Belgrade that can pour a Guinness properly, and blueberry beer tastes remarkably like a lager and black… Unfortunately, within two minutes of us arriving we were joined by a bunch of Israelis – this would not be a problem in itself, but the next element was certainly an issue – whom it became very clear were Zionists. The guy had the audacity to come out with comments such as, ‘Israel is too scared to retaliate to bombs from Lebanon, because they are worried about killing children and inciting the international media’! Given that we had not even had time to make a first impression on our hosts, we bit almost through our tongues as he spewed racist and often frankly stupid bullshit to his captive audience.

One day we walked along the Danube to Zemun, a town near to Belgrade. It is fairly picturesque, but the walk is what you go for. There is a humungous Orthodox Church – the biggest in the world apparently – which was under construction when we saw it. Churches that will be grand but are currently covered in scaffolding have a certain charm. Other highlights were the fortress, which offers great views over the city and the Danube, and has an enormous park around it. Lots of children chasing pigeons. We also visited Tito’s grave, which is remarkably hard to find. For a man who seems to be loved and admired by everyone you meet in former Yugoslavia, his final resting place is not well signposted..!

We caught another bus to Novi Sad (home to the Exit festival which is apparently just full of people from London…), where the weather finally relented. We met Marija and her incredibly energetic (some might call it extremely annoying, although she was quite fun) dog Bisa, who hosted us for those days. We explored the military tunnels beneath the fort, which apparently extend 16km underground and even under the river. Of course, there are rumours that they stretch even as far as to borders with other countries to allow the secret exits of generals under siege.

Marija encouraged us to hitch-hike to our next destination – Sarajevo. She shared her tips on being a single woman hitch-hiking – learn how to say things like ‘my dad is a policeman’ and ‘I’m a very religious girl…’ in the language! She also told us how she knew someone who hitched round Spain with a sign reading ‘Tokyo’. He never made it to Japan, but he did have quite a lot of success in Spain!

Efes

From the Med, we headed to another spot which should have a picturesque quality – Efes. An ancient Greek city, which later fell into the hands of the Romans, Efes now belongs to the Turks. The city dates back to 550BC, and a remarkable amount still stands. You can walk the ancient streets to libraries (the most famous site), temples and very interesting communal toilets. Unfortunately, it was raining really hard when we went there, but on the bright side (ha ha) we managed to find a “cheaper” way in. Extremely climbable fences…

On our way out, we were picked up by one of the most interesting drivers so far on this trip. Although he spoke barely any English (maybe 10 words), we managed to have conversations about religion, family and death. During one of his breaks, he introduced us to the guy who had honked his horn on the way past us earlier. Between them they quizzed us on our religious beliefs, and were astonished when we explained that we are atheists. It all became too much for them when they also found out that we aren’t married. “Ingilterre…” they said, shaking their heads at the absurdly heathen English people.

Bursa

Bursa was another uneventful city. The highlight of our stay with our CouchSurfing hosts was when we got to hang out with the Bright Young Things of Bursa. All the young people, rather than downing cheap vodka and hitting the clubs, doll themselves up for a night of tea and backgammon. The atmosphere was strange, one that we would associate with a bar – dark seating areas, slightly dodgy music etc – but with no alcohol attached. Josh managed to beat our host’s friend at backgammon 4 times in a row, even though he only just properly learnt the rules, much to her chagrin.

Istanbul for the second time

Istanbul again, and we finally left Asia for the rest of this trip – Europe here we come.

Unfortunately, Istanbul was less rewarding this time. We were there during May Day, which is properly celebrated as a workers’ holiday and therefore almost everything is closed. On the plus side, it meant we were able to drop in on the May Day demonstration. This was one of the first times that they had held it back in Taksim Square for about 40 years. The government excuse for not allowing this before was that some crazy had gone around shooting people indiscriminately in the 70s. What was most striking about the demonstration was how party-centric the whole thing was. The sectarianism was incredible. Different hats, different flags… It was so organised, but not in a good way, and of course the Communist Party had a massive presence.
The police presence was staggering. In order to enter Taksim Square you had to go past at least 1 line of police, where unless you were a tourist, you were properly searched by people in normal clothes and high-viz tabards, which suggested that they’d recruited a bunch of people especially for the occasion. There were also police tanks with water cannons, armoured riot vans and lines of riot cops just waiting to put their already overused “shields” to use again. Whether such a authoritarian manifestation would be excepted in the UK is questionable…

Edirne

Edirne was our final call in Turkey. It followed the most abysmal day of hitching we had in the country. While hitching East out of Istanbul is easy, hitching West is much more difficult, particularly when you try to do it from near the bus station. The amount of people who stopped in their cars to tell us that the bus station was right behind us was astounding (‘We KNOW!’). On top of this, so many people stopped to explain that people couldn’t stop there (!) that both of us were on the verge of punching the next person who offered such ‘helpful’ advice. In the end, we caught a lift with a guy who tried to drop us on the only real bit of motorway we travelled on in the whole of Turkey, without even a hard shoulder to stand on. Not the best place… The second guy nodded and nodded when we said we wanted to go to Edirne, so we relaxed when we went to a truck stand to get some tea (truck stops are prime hitching spots), but then AGAIN he dropped us bang on the motorway! This was the point where tethers were reaching their ends, and Lucie left both her hat and the map of Turkey in the guy’s car by accident. Luckily, at the exact point where we walked dejectedly down to the other road, a lorry was sitting that was headed all the way to Edirne. It was the first truck we’d seen which had an autopilot where the driver could sit cross-legged on his chair and make us cups of tea without really paying attention to anything…

We only really went to Edirne because we were unsure if we could make it all the way to Plovdiv in one day from Istanbul, but it turned out to be rewarding enough. Our CouchSurfing host had two budgerigars which provided the first hour’s entertainment as they flew around his sitting room, landing on our heads and making friends. We went out along the river to meet a few of his mates who spoke about their climate change-related campaigning and all the different foods we should taste while in their city. A result of this was our dining on beef liver, which was unlike anything either of us have ever tasted – certainly not like liver! Orhan explained that when you suggest to a friend in Turkish, ‘Let’s go eat’, you always say ‘Let’s go eat bread’, which certainly makes sense in the face of how many loaves you get through in a day in Turkey.

Olympos

Neither of us have much to say about the places visited in this blog, not because they were dull but because the photos speak for themselves…

From Antalya we caught our only non-local bus to Olympos. Set in a gorge right on the sea, Olympos is an ancient city right next to the electric blue sea. Josh was ill in bed with a fever for almost the entire time we were there, which meant he missed out on one of the few Turkish destinations we visited in the sunshine.

I have never been anywhere which is so rewarding to explore. Ancient amphitheatres, tombs, Roman baths and old houses complete with mosaic floors lie hidden within the undergrowth. Scrambling past the beach and up a hill brings you to Genovese castle from which you can view the sea and the ruins along the coast. I saw a surprising amount of tortoises and one HUGE snake (uncertain as to the black mamba population in Western Turkey I decided to go back onto the main path…).

If you aren’t ill like Josh was, it is a very relaxing and beautiful place to stay. The entirety of the accommodation in the area is directed solely at tourists – we stayed in a complex as big as a small village complete with ‘tree houses’ which are really just sheds on stilts near trees and other rooms. In the summer I would imagine it gets quite unbearably full of people, but since the sea was still a bit too cold to swim, the influx of tourists was far from its peak. It’s quite backpacker-y, which gave us the opportunity to chat to the hippy-est individual we’ve met on the trip thus far, who eats only raw food and who suggested that I give Josh an enema to make him feel better. It’s all about the toxins in the gut, apparently, although I didn’t follow this particular piece of advice…

There isn’t that much for me to say (I wasn’t paying attention to the signs about the history other than noting that pirates would occasionally ransack the city) so here are some more photos…

The rest of our time on the Western Mediterranean

Basically, it’s really beautiful. Our hitches in this area were astounding in places. Here are some more photos:

At one point we were treated to the presence of a presidential cycle ride – I’m not sure the president was there though…

We spent only one night in Fethiye – it seemed to our brief eyes that it’s a base from which people take cruises around the coast rather than particularly enjoyable in itself, although we later met a guy who testified to its incredible wondrousness which we must have missed.

Anyway, our final photo –

Konya

Konya is the spiritual home of Mevlana, or Rumi as he is better known by English-speakers, Sufi (also known as Dervish), Persian poet, religious leader, ascetic and lover of spiritual food and passion. He believed in music, poetry and dance as means to reach God, and was a great promoter of tolerance.

Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, idolater, worshiper of fire,
Come even though you have broken your vows a thousand times,
Come, and come yet again.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.

The only real reason to go to Konya is to visit his tomb and the museum included within it. It includes the mausoleum where Rumi, his father and many other people’s bodies are interred, a mosque, a whirling dance hall, dervish living quarters and a school. The mosque is beautiful, and full of carpets and ornate copies of the Qu’ran, one of which is so small that the scribe is said to have gone blind writing it.

A student of the Mevlevi dervish school would have to spend one thousand days training – this included music, whirling (of course), studying Rumi’s texts, but also appreciation of food. The first task would be to clean the toilets, so as to cleanse the student’s ego by doing ‘humble’ work.

In the whirling dance itself, the dancer enters in a black robe and asks permission from the master to dance, then casts off their robe to represent casting off their earthly desires. Then with one hand reaching upwards and the other to the floor – ‘whatever I receive from God I will spread throughout the world’ – the dancer pivots on one foot with their white skirts flowing around them.

Other than this and an uninspiring mosque, there was not much to do in Konya…

Antalya

Antalya looks like it might be quite nice. Unfortunately, it rained while we were there and as our host told us, when it rains in Antalya (which it rarely does) it really rains. So we dipped our feet in the Mediterranean for the first time on this trip and saw the harbour. Oh, and we went bowling and played air-hockey. We were told later in our trip that normally at the time we went people are happily swimming in Antalya, and we went bowling…

Ankara

Hıtchhıkıng remaıned blıssfully easy (even though Lucıe turned down a perfectly good lıft, but this turned out to be for the best as the next car that stopped was going all the way to our destination) and we arrıved ın Ankara – the capıtal of Turkey. Unlıke Istanbul there ıs very lıttle to see of ınterest ın Ankara – Istanbul would probably have remained the capital of the republic of Turkey if it hadn’t been under foreign rule when Ataturk declared Turkey’s existence – so thıs sectıon wıll be short. There ıs a fascınatıng museum – the Ankara Museum of Anatolıan Cıvılısatıon. The name ıs quıte self-explanatory. The Museum goes through all the stages of the ‘cıvılısatıon’ from really long ago and takes you untıl the Romans. There are loads of old thıngs to look at – lots of stylised stags and figures of incredibly fat women. The latter are used to suggest that maybe society was matriarchal or at least worshipped some sort of goddess (not the same thing, but never mind).

Other than thıs though, Ankara has very lıttle. A nıce enough castle and a really bıg mosque wıth a shoppıng mall attached to ıt, which seemed slightly surreal but apparently, since we saw this setup elsewhere, it’s fairly normal in Turkey – combine your needs for the day with worship and shopping in the same place… We CouchSurfed agaın, and our host, who was the under 16 chess champıon of Turkey, introduced us to Rakı whıch Lucıe lıked and Josh dıdn’t and gave us a potted hıstory of Turkey from the 16th century tıll now.

Movıng swıftly onto Cappadocıa whıch ıs out of thıs world!

Cappadocia

Once upon a time in far-off history there were volcanoes in this part of Turkey, and their ash settled after eruptions and became a very flaky type of rock. Over the years the wind has sculpted the rock into astonishing shapes such as the ‘fairy chimneys’ – tall thin points of rock, often topped with a chunk of a different type of rock which does not erode so easily, leaving ‘hats’ or toadstool-shaped caps on the stalks of rock. The larger rock formations look like sand dunes (or massive dildos) – ripples made by thousands of years of wind and rain. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it. One rock is shaped just like a camel, so there was the obligatory riding the camel photo –

Because the rock is so soft, it is possible to carve out 1 square metre in a few hours (apparently), and so there are many dwellings and also churches carved into the rocks. Our hostel had rooms carved into the rock face. Much more cave-like than the caves in Qikou in China! At the Goreme Open Air Museum there are many well-preserved churches and homes – you can tour around the eating halls and wine-squelching holes, chapels and caverns, although there is an onslaught of tour groups unfortunately, who pack out every available space… In some places you can escape the masses, climb up ladders or even the rungs cut into the rock and head up several storeys to look out over the area.

We felt very smug watching all the expensive package tours in their air-conditioned coaches as we hitched and walked our way from sight to sight – we hiked through unique valleys and wandered from strange rock to strange rock.

One day we hitched out to a tiny village to explore an underground ‘city’ – we decided to avoid the tour groups and the high charge and head to a lesser-visited one off the beaten track. It paid off as we were able to take our torch and explore past the lit areas (which were not very extensive) and feel much more adventurous than if everything had been well-lit and cordoned off. No one knows how many underground networks there are in Cappadocia – some say there is one for each village. At least 40 have been discovered and six are open to the public. Originally the dwellings were created to provide shelter from harsh weather conditions and protection from wild animals, but they were expanded into whole cities with homes connected to one another by tunnels by Christians who would use them to escape persecution by the Romans. Air vents were disguised as wells so attackers would not notice them – maybe they would pour poison in the ‘well’ to try to destroy a water supply, but this wouldn’t bother those hidden below. The earliest source about the cities is from the 4th century BC – it’s quite amazing to be able to wander around in a tunnel network past kitchens and store rooms that have been there for thousands of years.

If you’re headed to Cappadocia and decide to stay in Goreme like us, when you go to restaurants – where you can sample kebabs cooked in terracotta pots and cracked when served, or many different kinds of pide, which gets called ‘Turkish pizza’ in some places – ask for discount! ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get’, as the old saying goes, and in Goreme you get if you ask. You can blag at least 10% in lots of places for being a ‘student’ or even because you’re staying in a hostel where the owners are friends!

Following in the theme of religion, from here we hitched to Konya – spiritual home of Rumi.

Safranbolu

Havıng travelled around Indıa, any form of transport we took ın Turkey was goıng to be fast, even hıtchıng. But we weren’t expectıng ıt to be quıte so easy. Havıng taken a bus to the edge of town and walked along the road for a bıt, we jumped through a hole ın the fence and descended onto a roadsıde lorry park. No sooner had we got our bearıngs and decıded where we should stand than a drıver saıd ‘Izmıt? Yes.’ We were actually goıng further than that, but so was he, so ın mınus tıme we had bagged ourselves our fırst lıft and a free breakfast whıch was brought to us by hıs copper brother and then cooked ın the sıde of the lorry! Our next lıft seemed to be easy too – two guys headed exactly, they saıd, where we were. Unfortunately ıt turned out that they couldn’t read a map and they were goıng ın another dırectıon, but at a loss as to how to deal wıth thıs they went 50km out of theır way to drop us where they’d saıd they could! From there a petrol statıon attendant dashed out ınto the road to flag down a passıng bus and we were ın Safranbolu double tıme.

Safranbolu was even more amazıng than our hıtch was easy. The entıre town ıs a UNESCO World Herıtage sıte, and you can see why – hundreds of Ottoman houses have been lovıngly restoredö so apart from the tourıst tat whıch ınevıtably occurs ın such places, you could be ın the nıneteenth century. We vısıted a home that was restored ınsıde and out, complete wıth mannequıns actıng out people’s roles ın dıfferent rooms. The Ottomans had devısed a partıcularly ıngenıous way to keep theır women oppressed – the house was dıvıded ınto two parts so women were never seen by men who weren’t ın theır close famıly. They could make food and pass ıt through to the other sıde though (lucky them) by placıng ıt ın a revolvıng cupboard – the door closed on one sıde and the men opened the other door to retrıeve theır nosh… The second floor stuck out over the fırst ın an ıconıc sort of way.

Other than the vısually ımpressıve spectacle of the cıty, there ıs very lıttle to do. Thıs wasn’t helped by the fact that ıt raıned quıte a bıt. We managed to snatch some sunshıne ın whıch to clımb up to a vıewpoınt over the houses, and we wandered from sweet shop to sweet shop (there are a lot of them), feastıng ourselves on Turkısh Delıght (lokum). Safranbolu gets ıts name from saffron, belıeve ıt or not, and so everythıng ıs ‘saffron-flavoured/scented’, whether that be soap, perfume, tea or lokum. Lucıe ısn’t sure, from her lımıted experıence of saffron just ın these forms, that saffron really has a flavour or a smell as the perfume smelled of cologne-base and the tea tasted of hot water and honey… One of the guys who owned a shop sellıng woven thıngs and leather thıngs ıs famous ın both Chına and Japan – he showed us wıth clıppıngs from foreıgn magazınes. He’d be tıckled to thınk he’s on a blog from the UK too…