Sunday, November 25, 2007

Sunny Syria

The sun is shining as we cross the border into Syria. The ride is lively - our minibus driver seems intent on breaking the record for crossing from Antakya to Aleppo - and we cut in between trucks before screeching to a stop at the border. The formalities take only half an hour - so much easier than trying to enter Turkey - and before we can blink our crazy minibus driver has deposited us in Aleppo. It's a big city of about 3 million and the roads are chock full of traffic. Big roads impossible to cross. Narrow streets where taxis tear along at top speed. There are absolutely no women about. We explore the streets and discover the pavement obstacle course - steps, open manholes, broken paving, cars, piles of sand. "Halloo what's your name welcome to our country" is thrown out to us from all about. The streets are busy and eventually we spot a woman - in full black chador, her face completely covered so that it's hard to tell whether she's coming or going. Men are wearing keffiyes, the checked red and white cloths. We are in a new country with new smells and new tastes. Our first meal includes houmous and baba ganoush. Arabic numbers are identified, but no chance with the words. The man in the cafe speaks English so at least we can order food.

Aleppo has a large hectic souk in the old city and on a hill above stands the citadel - a classic medieval fortress surrounded by a moat. This is Crusader country. Once, twice, three times a campaign to seize Jerusalem from its Arab conquerors has left the country dotted with castle complexes. From the Aleppo citadel we can look over the dun-coloured city. Nearly all the buildings are faced in stone, and there are no high rise buildings - it looks miles better than the concrete messes we have been used to in Turkey. Down in the "new city" we roam the narrow shady parts of the Ottoman souk. Here there are hundreds of women out shopping - most, but not all, in black chadors. Despite the public dress code there are plenty of clothes shops selling a mixture of styles. Back in the business quarter it's all men's shoes and suits. In the evening the pavement sellers come out to sell their wares.

Our hotel room is clean, bright and toasty warm - the radiators blasting out welcome heat in the chilly evenings. We can't quite get used to the cost of things - so much cheaper than Turkey with not much difference in quality. Our tea costs us just over two quid and we're stuffed. In the morning we have foul (pronounced fool) for breakfast - big fava beans in warm yoghurt and drizzled with olive oil and cumin - with big mugs of tea. Makes a change from museli. Every now and again we get a whiff of cardamon on the street as we pass a coffee seller. The spice is ground in with the coffee.

After three days we catch a bus southwards to Hama. The two hour bus journey, which would have cost four pounds in Turkey, costs 65 pence. There's no coffee and cake, but water, a sweet and some Syrian comedy show on the TV - women behind us chuckle away gleefully. Hama is a town famed for its huge wooden water wheels that draw water up from the river and feed aqueducts for irrigation. At this time of year the river is too low, although one wheel is turning and groaning. From here we make daytrips out to Apamea - an old Roman city site with a 2km colonnaded high street - and Krak des Chevaliers, one of the best-preserved crusader castles. We visited the castle with James, a young Englishman who is also heading eastwards. The journey there is a bit complicated - we have to take two minibuses and then ask a man in a beat-up old car to take us the last 10km for a quid. He has to stop twice to get water to cool the engine as we climb up to the grand fortress. The castle is huge and built up inside, and I can't help thinking of Monty Python. There are great views across the hills around and to snowy mountains in Lebanon. Our return journey is harder - we end up hitching a lift from a man in a van back to the main highway. Here we are ignored by every passing minibus. It's looking bad until Gayle flags down a small truck. We pile into the cab and James uses the phrasebook to make introductions. There's a crucifix hanging from the rear-view mirror. George the driver is typically very kind and drops us at the minibus station to get back to Hama.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Our last stop in Turkey. It takes us a while to orient ourselves in Antakya - our map is wrong - and then we have some hotel shenanigans, finally going back to one we had looked at first. It's sometimes cold in the evenings so we've been glad of heating. Besides air conditioning this room has the added advantage(?) of a TV - I check the time of the big match and what channel its on. European finals qualification at stake, and all that. Then we head out to get some lunch and wander around the town.
It's a smallish city on the banks of a river, and it's hard to imagine it had a population of half a million in Roman times. As the ancient town of Antioch it was home to one of the earliest christian churches. It also had wealth - the local museum exhibits (in a vague sense of the word) a huge collection of mosaics recovered from ruins nearby- sadly none are complete.
In between rainstorms we take a gander down some of the streets - it's much smarter and tidier than grotty Gaziantep, and not how we imagined it to be. After the First World War the city fell under French control as part of Syria. It then declared itself as an independent republic until Turkey 'absorbed' it in 1938. We thought it woud have a flavour of Syria about it but not a single plate of houmous can we find.
Gayle spots a cinema poster for Atonement and we go to the cinema for the first time in a long while - the film is sub-titled in Turkish, which is fine except for two scenes in French. We are unfazed. Back at the bus depot we have already been speaking French to get details of the bus to Aleppo. The film is okay but lacks the drama and excitement of the footie which is on when we get back to our hotel. And what can I say about the football? Well, Turkey looked a bit nervous but deserved their 1-nil victory over Bosnia Hercegovina. Mmm, wonder how England are doing against Croatia.........

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Night Bus to Urfa

Well, Şanliurfa to be precise, although 'Glorious' Urfa seems somewhat of a misnomer. A bit like saying 'Wonderful Rochdale'. Urfa is one of those scruffy eastern Turkey towns that has an historical air about it and a sewer system to match. We continued our whirlwind flight to Syria by heading here from Konya on a comfortable night bus. We'd met a soldier (presumably an officer -he was reading a book) on the bus who told us what a marvellous cosmopolitan country Turkey is - but then asked us what we thought about the PKK etc. Unfortunately the conversation ended when the bus set off, so we couldn't talk more about it.
The buses are generally excellent, and after each journey has begun the bus "steward" comes down the aisle, first with cheap cologne to wipe your hands with and then tea or coffee and cake. So civillised. There are strict rules: no smoking and no mobile phones - rules that are never broken by the passengers, although it's not an uncommon sight to see your driver lighting a fag with one hand while he talks to someone on his mobile as he's overtaking a slow truck approaching a blind summit. The night bus to Urfa departed at 9.30pm and dropped us off at 7.30am - this far east the sun rises and sets much earlier and we wandered around looking for a hotel - undecided as ever - in bright sunshine. Gayle eventually left me with the rucksacks and roamed around a bit - finally finding a cheap dive built on top of a row of breakfast "salonus". The cheap dives are fine if the shared facilities and beds are clean. Our problem is with the mid-range dives that charge more and offer gloomy rooms with brown curtains and Alice in Wonderland ensuite bathrooms.

Urfa is an ancient city - continuously inhabited for 11,000 years allegedly - and has famous gardens built around two lakes full of carp. These are to commemorate where Ibrahim/Abraham fell when he was plucked from a burning pyre by Allah/God. On a Saturday afternoon the gardens were very busy with families, couples, packs of children, and men who would say hello as they passed by. It was warm and sunny and we snoozed over a tea in one of the tea gardens and watched punters rowing around the lake.
That night Turkey played Norway in their European qualifier and the staff in the restaurant couldn't tear themselves away from the TV after their team equalised. We haven't had too many football conversations with Turks recently - the last was on the night we left Istanbul and someone made a reference to Liverpool - they were smiling so I guess they were a Fenerbahçe fan.

Our penultimate stop in Turkey was Gaziantep - 'heroic' Antep, named for fighting off the French after the First World War. Our sole purpose to visit was to see their Roman mosaics, recovered from ruins on the banks of the Euphrates before a damn project would have flooded them. The collection was from a very small site where every house had four or five almost intact mosaics. They were superb - with great detail. The city itself is big and modern with very few green spaces - so pretty typical of Turkey. There are a couple of large churches converted to mosques - an indication of the history of the place. Most Syrian christians and Armenians left here when Turkey became a republic. Not quite the cosmopolitan country the soldier tried to have us believe.
We spent a day mooching about and trying to crack on with our mobile library - a small selection of which is featured. We are both avoiding TE Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom - its time will come............

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Burnley Tea Towel

From Selçuk we had an uneventful journey to Pamukkale. In fact it was the dullest journey we've had in Turkey, not helped by low cloud on the surrounding hills. Pamukkale is a tiny place overflowing with hotels and restaurants and sharks. After finding a good place to stay we headed off up the hill to walk through calciferous pools of thermal water. The hillside is a solid white waterfall. Above it are the ruins of Hieropolis, which became a Roman spa town because of the hot spring waters. Perhaps because it is less well-known than Ephesus we actually preferred it. The setting was great and the site was well-labelled. The main street had been rediscovered after 2 metres of calcified rock had been dug up and beside it was a huge agora (market/meeting place). Above the town was the reconstructed amphitheatre and another uncovered road led to an octagonal basilica built on the spot where it was believed Phillip the apostle was killed. We wandered happily around in drizzle and occasional rain before descending the slopes back to the comfort of our pension.
The next day we moved on, taking a long ride to Konya. We arrived in the dark and staggered around looking for the tram into the centre - it seems they're not so big on street lighting round these parts. Anyway, we finally found a hotel that was a shade pricey but toasty warm. A misty night had developed as we sauntered down the high street in search of a magical Indian restaurant. It was not to be so we settled for the good ol' Kebab Salonu. An english-speaking waiter was assigned to us upon entry and he was very friendly. At the end of our meal he got chatting and talked about some English friends from Burnley who had sent him a "tool". We asked about his english and he explained he used to work for a handicrafts shop. He had a map of the city, and as we walked out of the restaurant he carried on talking ceaselessly and took us across the road and down a side street to....a carpet shop. We both wanted to laugh out loud. Inside he showed us his Burnley "tool" - a tea towel pinned to the wall, and then simply because we had nothing else to do we sat there and let his friend show us some carpets. We said we weren't buying and we recited back to him all the usual fluff we get about double-knots, Kurdish kilims, silk embroidery etc. - in fact it's surprising how much we've picked up along the way. After a polite 10 minute rest we said goodnight and left. What a great line though - the Burnley "tool".
Konya is the home to the whirling dervishes - a kind of muslim off-shoot - and you can visit the tomb of the founder, a 12th century Afghan who settled here and began the cult of spinning, inside a Seljuk mosque. The tomb was busy with Turkish tourists and faithful and schoolchildren but I was disappointed by the velvet-covered coffin - I thought they could at least have had it rotating at a stately pace...........

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


"Do you want to buy some Roman coins?" A skinny man in a dirty sweatshirt is pushing a handful of tin toy money at a tourist in front of us and she is dithering. Should she tell him to bugger off or try not be too rude? In the end she says "Maybe on the way out," and walks on. He then stands in front of us with two mobile phones and looks us up and down and growls "What?" "Do you want us to buy a Roman phone?" we ask. He grins woolfishly. "This is Apollo phone - direct from God." And then he produces the tin money again. "Do you want to buy Roman coins? Where are you from?" "We're British" "We're Czech" we say in unison. "We're British archeaologists", Gayle clarifies. His eyes light up and he starts to pull a black leather case from his back pocket. "Then maybe you want to buy some real coins?" We laugh and turn away. "Maybe weed, dope, cocaina??" he shouts after us.

We like Ephesus - they are great Roman ruins. There are two main streets (one closed), a range of reconstructed buildings, a handful of mosaics left in situ. The ruins spread out over a large site and there's a real sense of a city. It was a port but it has long since silted up and the coast is now 7km away. The day is cloudy and there's a few tour buses in the carpark but by the time we begin to walk back to the entrance the crowds have gone and it is quiet. One cruiseship group had a Roman scene acted out for them. Very cheesy - 12 actors pretending to be soldiers, gladiators and caesar etc. - all a bit funny really. The amphitheatre is huge - seating 24,000. A large crane is parked next to it for repairs. The most impressive sight is the rebuilt facade of the library.

We came from Bergama yesterday - a slow journey via Izmir. We had planned to stop in Izmir but after we finally reached the centre we couldn't think of a reason why and immediately hopped on a train to Selçuk. Actually, we hopped onto a bus at the train station that took us to another station where we hopped onto the train. Reminded us of Virgin Rail.

Bergama also has ruins - of the ancient city of Pergamum. They sit on a hill overlooking the new town. When we arrived on our nightbus from Istanbul it was just starting to rain. So we went to bed. In the afternoon the rain continued and we found refuge in a cafe for the town's youth. A place where you can hang out over a cup of tea, smoke endless cigarettes and play a guitar. It seemed popular with girls and boys - looked like students in their drainpipe jeans and gelled hair - just talking and giggling away. Not a drop of alcohol. This is the alternative to the traditional tea house which is solely the domain of men in woolly hats. The next day was sunny and we climbed the hill and entered the ruins by taking a path avoiding the ticket booth. As we climbed past a modern building a man approached us. He had keys for the building and he led us inside. An old house had been excavated and the original floor mosaics were revealed. Fantastic stuff. We continued up the hill to the amphiteatre and through a tunnel out to a square full of tour groups. Gayle overheard the instructions to a Spanish group: "Ir al bano, sacar de photos, comprar algo" (go to the toilet, take some photos, buy something) in the ten minutes before the bus left. Pergamum once had a library to rival that of Alexandria - until Mark Anthony carted the lot off to give to Cleo. We had a look at some of the other remains and then returned the way we had come. Our descent took us through the old town full of run-down Greek houses. A real shame because they had obviously been good homes once.......

From Ephesus we walk back to the town of Selçuk. There is a sign indicating the Temple of Artemis. Our guidebook tells us this was one of the seven Ancient Wonders of the World. Amazed, we go to find a huge field with a single column and a bit of stone here and there. A gaggle of geese are honking in the corner. Three men are sat in the carpark with plastic carrier bags of postcards. Sometimes my imagination fails me.

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Big City

Just had a busy week back in Istanbul - meeting up with my mum and dad and seeing all the major sights. It was actually a very relaxing time for us as we stayed in a comfortable appartment together right by the Galata Tower. It's easy to get around the old part of the city thanks to the modern tram and we visited the Blue Mosque, Aya Sophia and the Topkapı Palace plus some other lesser known places such as a huge underground Byzantine cistern, the Chora Church full of Byzantine mosaics, and the wonderful archaeology museum. The city is hilly which can make the walking around tiring but allows for great views across the Goldern Horn and the Bosphorus. These two waterways seem eternally busy with ferries and cruise ships and tankers. There was also some time to wander around the Grand Bazaar, which seems given over to the tourist trade, and make a visit to a hamam (Turkish Bath). The weather reminded us of Britain - lots of rain and a cold wind off the Bosphorous, but there was some sun too. I can't remember the last time we spent such a length of time with my mum and dad, but it was great fun and made up a little for the time we've been away. The days passed too quickly really.

After finishing our walking on the south coast we had returned to Antalya to collect the rest of our things and do a big laundry session, swap some books and burn our photos to cd (a tortuous task when the bloke in the internet cafe makes a mess of it). The old town there is worth a stroll around but is oddly quiet for such a big city. All the locals use the surrounding modern city, which is fairly ugly and always full of traffic. We then took a nightbus back to Istanbul and took up the kind offer of accomodation from Pam and Joe, the American couple we met by Lake Van. They are teaching English here and have a spare room. It's a joy to stay with such easy-going people - to feel at home straight away and such a contrast to all the anonymous and soulless hotel rooms. After my parents flew back to Blighty we stayed another night with them and finished off some other travel tasks. One of these was to get our visa for Syria. Because we are not applying from our own country, we were required to provide a letter of recommendation from our government. It was a fairly simple task to call in at the British consul (which was a grand mansion in walled seclusion). Security was tight - our bag was searched and when we explained to the guard that all we had in our Sigg bottle was Istanbul tap water he made us drink it. Then he told us that he would never drink Istanbul tap water. Charming. The letter of recommendation took 10 minutes to produce and cost us 60 quid - a bit like going to the dentist. We concluded that this was the biggest rip-off in all our time in Turkey. The content is reproduced below:

"Her Britannic Majesty's Consulate General at Istanbul presents its compliments to the Consulate General of the Arab Republic of Syria and has the honour to inform the Consulate General that Gayle .... and John ..., holders of British passports wish to visit Syria. Her Britannic Majesty's Consulate General has no objection to the issue of Syrian visas to Gayle ... and John ... Her Britannic Majesty's Consulate General at Istanbul avails itself of this opportunity to convey to the Consulate General of the Arab Republic of Syria the assurance of its highest consideration."

Worth every penny, eh? Still, we got the visa so that's where we are heading.