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Turkey

 

 27 October 

Plov-drive today. Europeans call McDonalds Drive-Through the "McDrive". Today, and not for the first time in our Eastern European Odyssey, we did a Drive Through - this time of  Plovdiv. The camping ground  we were searching for was nowhere to be found - it must have escaped into the same black hole as the one in Veliko Tarnovo (another Bulgarian city where we searched unsuccessfully for a campground) - so we decided to make a run for it before the Traffic Police caught up with us. The odds were against us as every trap set by these vigilant officers had netted several prey. But wait! We have Bulgarian leva left. Off to the Metro - not the Underground railway as you might imagine, but one of a series of Megastores that have sprung up on the outskirts of almost every major city in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

 These shops stock everything from hairpins to clothes driers - a lot of it in bulk - you don't just buy 6 potatoes but 25 kilos! They are ginormous (perhaps they created that black hole that ate our lost camping grounds), deal only in cash - but kindly provide ATMs - and - at least for us tourists - force customers to spend at least 50 leva ($40 AUS).

Having spent our leva and filled the larder, we escaped Bulgaria, AND without serious police harrassment. From what we understand this is somewhat of an accomplishment. But enough Bulgaria bashing. It is a part of our trip that really requires time to reflect on what was perceived threat and what was real. (Bookmark this spot for a later reflection!)

 Turkey so far is a hoot! The border crossing was probably the most drawn out so far but more of a pleasant sequence of misunderstandings than anything else (or are we becoming tolerant to inefficiency?)  

Exiting Bulgaria was again part of the universal –‘ Australian? Off you go’ -  bit. Whole bus loads of people have their socks unwoven but we seem to be blessed with the 'harmless twits' image? A quick glance in the 'biosphere' toilet is always enough to send the most ardent customs officer packing. 

At the first Turkish check point our passports were given a cursory glance .. Australian? smile.. wave on. At the second  a young police officer pointed us to the Cashier Booth 50 metres away for visas. This was not unexpected and we happily traipsed off to pay our US$20 each. Back to the obliging officer who stamped away with gusto and pointed to what we thought was the way out. Wrong again. Three hundred metres on we met the vehicle check. "Passports.. Auto Papers?".  Auto visa?? This was a new one. Back to the Cashier (the same one). Another US$4 and we had an auto visa.

 Not at all fazed we returned to the vehicle check, were ushered around several pushy Arabs of some sort and had our visa stamped for another US$2. An obliging customs officer (the same one who had helped before) waved us through - off at last!... But no. One more booth. Guess what! The customs officer had been so obliging he had neglected to stamp our passports with customs clearance. Back again. Somewhat embarrassed, the offending officer recognised his error immediately and called the official 'stamper' away from his dealings with some lesser beings and arranged the appropriate stamping . The only down side to this point was that the customs 'stamper' had the hide to suggest that we must be retired to be able to travel so far. A sense of humour - we think we like these people already! 

Our exit was announced to the officer in charge of exit boom gates - ..something ... something .. Australians.. gate opened and off. 

Excellent highway and signs directly to the very plush camping/motel complex that we call home for tonight. Good dinner watching the football with the locals.

 28 October

 What is it in people that makes them bearable? Or even likeable? Surely some of it has to do with one's own attitude at the time. But trust us, when you have no idea what day it is, you are fairly tolerant. Our tolerance has quickly turned to frustration when dealing with those north of the Turkish border and south of the Hungarian frontier.

However, as yesterday's border crossing proved, otherwise annoying dealings with people can be easy-going and pleasant. Having learnt not to judge a national character too early we still hold (possibly unreasonable) reservations about the Turks. But the book is well and truly open after one day. 

Istanbul is one of the top four on the world's largest cities list. More than fifteen million people live here. That's more than the population of New York and Sydney jammed into the geographical area of Greater Brisbane. Most of them own very nice new little European or Japanese cars. Those who don't drive little yellow buses, taksis (sic) or trucks.

 The chosen day for our arrival in this great metropolis just had to be Republic Day. The day we all go to town or drive our cars, buses, taxis and trucks about, waving the Red Crescent.

 Now it is difficult for well-travelled people like us to admit it but we really have never seen anything like this! Six to ten lane (each way!) highways criss-cross the huge beast that is Istanbul. The lane markings are still visible and there are definitely no more than three lanes! This means that for every two lane markings, drivers make 3 - 5 lanes of viable traffic - and it is viable. People honk (politely) to let you know they are coming in on your right/left [whatever they choose] and the multiple lane system works - as long as you do what you indicate you are about to do. Hesitate and you are lost ( and castigated for your transgression with a quite different tone of honk.)

 In the tracks of the Romans and the Crusaders we launched ourselves into the accelerating throng of literally hundreds of thousands of vehicles heading for the city on the D100. The reason being that our task for the day was to find 'Camping Londra'. Four hours later we had traversed the same small ring of freeways and back streets four or five times. If anybody ever needs to drive to Istanbul Airport we have an intimate knowledge of the main entrance. Wonder if the machine-gun toting guards around the perimeter had our number after the 6th pass?` This was not just our normal - lost in a strange city - trick. This was big time lost in a big time city!

 As the minarets of the centre of the third or fourth largest city in the world loomed closer, we finally found our quarry and, as is our practice, drove straight past it!

 Aided by a number of 'pump boys' at service stations, all of whom were more than happy to provide advice and directions in the best possible humour, we are now happily settled, and it is possible to laugh about our four hours in hell. But once one has survived Istanbul traffic nothing holds any further threat. Bring on the Romans!

 Sharing our small patch of green in the midst of the total chaos that is inner Istanbul, is an English family with three small children in a Landrover and a tent. They are on their way overland to Bombay. Through Turkey and Iran and Pakistan. That's adventure travel! It might have suited them better if they were travelling in the IRE van we camped beside in Zakapone (Poland). It must have been a converted armoured car from the 'troubled Irish north'. Grilled windows, several obvious alarm systems and on a high wheel base. The obvious answer to the usual border question, 'purpose of visit?' for this guy would be 'invasion!'

 As the muezzins call the faithful and the sirens scream constantly in the distance, we know we are in one 'big mother of a city!'   

Tomorrow we jump the train (metro) with the rest of the fifteen million locals and head for the centre of the city.

 

29 October

Tactical Note:

 TO:    Major General Peter Cosgrove

 Do not attempt to invade Turkey again. Learn from the past and let it be.

--------------------

Turkey spends as much on defence as the UK and Germany combined and a fair portion of the hardware purchased with the tax payers' money was on display today for the Republic Day celebrations. As we travelled to the centre of this amazing city we passed the marshalling area for the parade - a closed-down three-lane freeway. First we saw the light tanks with heavy machine guns and troop-carrying cabins. Then the tanks! Kilometres of them lined up ready to rumble. That was all we saw of the parade. We headed straight for the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and the Sultan's Palace on the Metro and Tramway.

 The press of people was minimal as it was Sunday. Having been awakened at sunrise by the chants of the muezzins from two thousand eight hundred plus minarets and the four speakers on each, we were on the road a little earlier than usual.

 Everything works surprisingly well and with minimal hassle on the public transport system that must surely be one of the most amazingly diverse in the world. Metro, trams, ferry boats, private buses and city buses cram the roads, moving 3.5 million people a day, seven million person/trips.  

 

The sights of Istanbul are everything the guide books promise - so very different from the Western culture with which we are so familiar. Respect for Muslim religious beliefs and practices demands that shoes be removed before entering a mosque, but recognition of a more modern concept (theft) means that plastic bags are provided for you to store and carry your shoes during your visit - a part of the Turkish compromise between east and west.

 There are however always the downsides of every experience. Being forewarned about being hassled by carpet vendors and assorted touts, we began by simply ignoring them for the most part, but, by and large, they are not pushy and if you smile and say "No", they retreat into the background. They seem offended at being ignored. Turks, so far, have been overtly helpful and friendly. While we recognise this as an opening tack to "the big sell", it is a pleasant change from the general surliness of people in Eastern Europe.

City buses deserve special comment. Approximately the size of a Fort Transit panel van 7000 of these off-yellow workhorses roam the city, gathering at almost every corner to take on another load of passengers who seem to be replaced on the queue as soon as the bus leaves. They are always packed to the extent that their tails drag on the road. Private buses are more comfortable but more expensive (10-20 cents more). At every stop, private operators honk, play tuned horns and pace the pavement soliciting custom. Constantly in the background of all this movement is the drone, honking and screeching of the 18,000 taxis, thousands of trucks and millions of private vehicles.

 Astonishingly, this afternoon when the populace was really on the streets, we made the journey from the centre of the city to our park, about 12 - 15 kms by metro and tram in about 30 minutes. (As we write fire works - we hope.. are erupting all around).

 This is no poor third world city, nor is it New York or London. But in its own right it can justly claim to be one of the truly great cities of the world. For the statistically minded Istanbul has 1,500 banks, 1000 hotels, 135,000 grocery shops, 36,000 hairdressers, 13,000 police officers and 300,000 public servants. Every year the city needs to build 80,000 new houses and yearly there are 70,000 marriages, 40,000 deaths and, interestingly, only 5,000 divorces.

Muslim culture is strong and pervasive here, particularly noticeable in the ratio of men to women (90:10) we saw on public transport and on the streets. Of the women we did see, the majority are wearing shapeless, full-length coats and headscarves - ( of course they could have been having bad-hair and/or fat days). However, accommodation seems to have been made, since the times of Ataturk, the first leader of modern Turkey (and interestingly the General who led the defense of Turkey in 1917), for western ways - in particular a tolerance and even an encouragement of diversity in religious and political views. The state-sponsored renovation of the Basilica of St Sophia in the 1930s is just one example of the willingness of the Turkish people, and in particular the citizens of Istanbul, to understand and live with their unique geographical position, astride two massive and historically turbulent continents.

 

Today may well have been a freak, but the strait between Asiatic and European Istanbul was a picture. The bays and bridges framed by a skyscape, not dissimilar to Sydney, were further enhanced by a clear (pollution-free!) blue sky.

 30 October

 Today we met the pulse that was and is the real Istanbul. The streets and alley ways of Eminonu lie in the heart of what was old Constantinople. At the foot of the Sultan's palace, these streets today teem with small shops, street traders and trucks delivering goods in medieval byways no wider than the average driveway. The Romans and the soldiers of the Crusades trod these streets and today hundreds of thousands of people move through the streets in a good-humoured tide, pulsing around slowly-wandering gaping tourists like us. The feeling is exhilarating and not at all threatening, although, with the normal travellers' wariness, everything we carry of value is well hidden.

Higher up the hill in Eminonu are the markets of the Grand Bazaar -  four thousand four hundred shops in a market that has operated here for centuries. Traders are direct but not aggressive. Service, if you show interest, is over the top. Buying a $6 T-shirt could well involve a drink of tea and several fittings. Shopping is a great game played and enjoyed by all players. 

Crossing the Galata Bridge from Eminonu was like moving between two vastly different worlds situated within 500m of each other. The shortest underground railway in the world whisks you from the edge of the Golden Horn to the top of the Galata Hill, for centuries the 'sentry post' for the city. Overlooking the three major intersecting waterways on which Istanbul stands, the Galata Tower provides a panaroma of the whole central city.

In Galata the street-hustling shoe-cleaner boys wear clean woollen jumpers and 'bum-bags' to carry their cash! The two kilometres of chic shops and side arcades with quality produce from fish to game have much the same feel as Paris, Prague or Budapest. Traditional Moslem dress is rare here, or perhaps there are fewer bad-hair days. Wealth is obvious, but not ostentatious. Crossing back in the late afternoon to the teeming streets of Eminonu, the sky was clear and the late afternoon sun again turned the harbours of Istanbul into a 'must stop and gape' site.

Trams were passing stops unable to fit more passengers. Ours was 'close' to say the least. But people were polite and co-operative, even in the midst of what we would normally view as intolerable conditions. Contrary to popular belief, Turkish men have adjusted to the expectations of the increasing numbers of women in the Moslem culture who have chosen to dress and behave in a Western way. Although it is interesting that the usual practice of men standing for women on trams, buses etc., is more prevalent when women in traditional dress require a seat.

Children are extremely well behaved and almost always in the company of their parents. The usual signs of youth out of control, graffiti, street crime and general 'rabble rousing' is totally absent in Istanbul! Strong Moslem family values may well be the reason. 

What more can one say about one of biggest and most exciting cities on earth?

 31 October 

Left Istanbul this morning under clear skies, but as we crossed the city, the extent of the pollution in the industrial areas became evident. Without question Istanbul on a bad day is right up there with the cities of Eastern Europe. For well over a hundred kilometers, visibility was down to less than 500 metres and we could feel it in our throats and see it on our tissues.

 Istanbul's industrial and urban sprawl on the Asian side of the Bosphorus reaches as far as the city of Izmit where over a hundred thousand people died in a devastating earthquake in 1999. From the highway the only real signs of the disaster are the thousands of temporary homes in large compounds like concentration camps. 

Away from the cities and up into the mountains, we left the smog behind. A beautiful day with snow just visible on the highest peaks, even though the temperature was in the high teens. The landscape changed through forest  - with snow to road level - to open (Australian-like) grazing land to rocky Mediterranean desert. From sea-level at Istanbul this morning, we have climbed to 1850 metres, on the Anatolian plateau which extends east to the Caucasus Mountains.

 We are camped in a motorway services area 40 km outside Ankara. Given the clear sky and the open countryside we expect a cold night and a colder morning. These chills are usually only until the sun gets up as there is still plenty of warmth left and as we go further south it should continue to keep us warm.

  

1 November

 Our concerns of being the only overnighters in the services last night were alleviated around 8.00pm as truck after truck joined us. In the cool (0 C ish) light of day the realisation that we are in the middle of an earthquake area hit us. Why had we camped against a wall?

 We hesitate to say this for fear of breaking the spell - but we have had the most unbelievable weather. In six weeks, we have had one day when it rained for a hour or so and we broke out the Drizabones. Turkey does not have clouds! Clear skies every day so far. Once we are away from urban smog the countryside is magnificent.

Left the service area just outside Ankara about 8.30am and drove on a six lane motorway virtually alone for an hour or so to Ankara and around its ring road. Turkish motorways have tolls. But at the price, why would you do it any other way? Nine dollars for the services of an empty six lane motorway for nearly 400 kms from Istanbul to Ankara [including the Bosphorus bridge toll]!

 Ten kilometers from the centre of Ankara there is nothing much to see. Open plains dotted with small clusters of unfinished housing estates. Thousands upon thousands of houses. Few occupied -- are they super-organised and ready for the next 50 years of expansion - or are they using the leftover funds from the Earthquake  Appeal?

 Turkish drivers are reputedly the worst in the world. Another myth dispelled.

 Compared to Bulgarian, Romanian and even Polish drivers they are not half bad. The system seems to work this way. If you get a short polite beep it means "I'm coming through." If you get a long sharp blast, you have transgressed in some way. Passing on single carriage roads is done much more cautiously than in eastern Europe. And as with everything in Turkey the whole thing is achieved with good humour. 

These people have to be the friendliest we have encountered anywhere!. Good manners and the every day civility of a G'day, a nod or some other greeting are ingrained here as they are at home (or more so?). Pull into a camping ground and the 'chief' (boss/owner) will be by within a respectable time to welcome you personally. Monday, returning from a day in Istanbul, we crossed the freeway near our camp (by overpass - although there were other options!) to do a bit of shopping, in the mayhem that is inner suburban Istanbul. As we crossed the road the cleaner from the camping area caught my eye. Amongst hundreds of people, maybe even thousands, he nodded recognition as he trod the teeming streets to his home.

 Crossing the mountains into the valley of Cappadocia is something we will never forget. Even having seen the spectacular landforms in videos and pictures is no preparation for the real thing. Geology and history have combined to create a truly unique environment in and around the small village of Goreme. Flows of volcanic lava followed by millions of years of erosion have created mounds of rock that the inhabitants of this valley have carved and quarried to meet their needs for thousands of years. 

 

In the late afternoon light the colours change by the minute. This time of the year tourists are relatively thin on the ground. As a result prime vantage points to take in the sites of this unique region are virtually all ours! Our camping ground - and we are again the only occupants - sits above the village with views of the whole valley. Having finally found a shop that sold beer, this is a Moslem country let's not forget, we retired to our uninterrupted panorama at sunset.

 How's the serenity??!!

 Travelling in Turkey is far easier than we anticipated. 'Bankomats' (ATMs) are on almost every corner. Roads are excellent. Petrol stations take VISA and 'Services camping' (on the motorway and free!) is again viable. The only thing that we can't seem to find is a big supermarket! Having tried the outskirts of every large town and city we have passed through we have given up and started to shop in local 'corner shops'. Interesting! Language becomes a problem, prices of goods are not marked and what you want is never available. On the beer index Turkey is the pits. AUS$1.50 for a 500ml can. The record so far goes to Romania 62c for the same product. But on almost every other measure Turkey is tops!

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