Saturday, 26 December 2009

Diu

Sunday 20 December: Portuguese enclave until 1961 the island retains tax-free status so local spirits, beer, port and even wine is relatively inexpensive. Surrounded by the strict Hindu state of Gujarat which operates prohibition laws it's a popular destination for locals and visitors alike, especially at holiday times.
Set in the Arabian Sea, Diu has an imposing Portuguese fort with huge bastions, a double moat and range of bronze and iron cannons. Not quite a tropical paradise, the beaches are sandy, the town's quiet, hassle-free and the locals are friendly - Sunset beach the most popular with foreign travellers.
Dinners mostly at O'Coquero Music Garden Restaurant which specialises in Portuguese fish dishes. No Turkey this year but delicious king fish, squid, sea eel, tuna and pomfret served plain-fried or in a variety of sauces. Midnight Mass at the elaborate, whitewashed St Paul's, billed by the tourist board as an annual festival, was a joyous affair with music and song.

Celebrated the New Year at O'Coquero's with
Canadian-Gujarati hippy guy, elf-like Bavarian redhead Sonja, hot Swedish Kristina, a young Argentinian guy heading down to Kerala, shaven-headed Paul, a Belgian cyclist spending three-and-a-half years peddling his way around the world to Alaska and, of course, nice to see, once again goaty-bearded Kevin from Tullamore.
Photos of Diu.
Friday 1 January 2010: Great to be on the road again - 7:30 pm double-decker sleeper bus with beds (37th mode of transport) for the 11 hour ride to Ahmedabad to catch the 11:55 pm Howrah Express sleeper to Jalgoan on Saturday.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Udaipur

Thursday 17 December: The most romantic city in India with a beautiful lake, palaces and temples.
Island Palace is best viewed from the the northern shore of the lake which is inhabited by exotic waterfowl like Wigeon, Dollarbird, Egret and the Common Kingfisher - seen throughout India on beer bottle labels.
The lakeside City Palace complex is the largest in Rajasthan and the only one of the three on the lake open to visitors.
All white marble, Lake Palace, now a five star hotel, is famed as the film-set for
'Octopussy Island' in the movie of Ian Fleming's 1966 short Bond story. A British film to the core it's screened nightly in most hotel restaurants to the cringing enjoyment of most diners.
Unbelievably, in such a large country, bumped into Kevin again who had cycled here via Delhi, Agra and Bundi.
Picturesque Udaipur.
Six-hour bus ride to Amhmedabad for Somnath Mail sleeper train to Vereval and early morning three-hour local bus to Diu for a seaside Christmas and New Year.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Jaisalmer and Jodhpur

Sunday 13 December: Seven-hour bus ride from Pushkar, via Ajmer, to Jodhpur for 11:00 pm Jodhpur–Jaisalmer Express (No 4810) sleeper through the dusty red desert to Jaisalmer and the delights of the Golden City Hotel, it's en-suite rooms with cable TV, rooftop restaurant and swimming pool.
Bastioned hill-top fortress town of golden sandstone with intricately carved palaces and Jain temples in the heart of the Great Indian or Thar Desert - Jaisalmer is my sort of place. Ignore the hassles from camel safari vendors and it's a great place to wander and enjoy even without the exotic fare offered at the bhang cafe. At long last got my expensive karrimor sandals neatly repair-stitched by a street trader for few rupees. Cute animals in the fortress town and bird life amongst the temples at Gadisar Lake which is alive with not-so-cute cat fish grappling for food. Carved penthouse of Salim Singh ki-Halveli and Tazia Tower - just fantastic, but the cenotaph cupolas are a quiet, restful place away from the bustle of town.
Day trip to Sam Sand Dunes, once a place to watch the desert sunset - now a place to watch the, mostly Indian, camel-riding tourist hordes watching the desert sunset.
Wednesday 16: Jaisalmer-Jodhpur Express (No 4809) sleeper arrived at Jodhpur station 5:15 am. Waited for daylight to look at the clock tower, sturdy fort and for the 7:30 am bus to Udaipur. Drank Chai (masala tea) while sitting next to four street children, asleep and curled up together for warmth, like puppy dogs, on the station floor (no photo).
Jaisalmer and Jodhpur scenes.

Jaipur and Pushkar

Monday 7 December: Gateway the desert state of Rajasthan the 'pink city' is a relatively clean state capital. Built by warrior-astronomer Maharaja Jai Singh II, the old Mughal walled city is entered through great pink gateways revealing the busy streets and bustling bazaars.
The city icon is the Palace of Wind or Hawa Mahal but the weird looking ancient observatory, is more interesting and, a short bus ride away, the honey-coloured Amber Fort is far more spectacular. Jal Mahal set in the lake is also a pretty picture.
Wednesday 9 December: A prohibition on alcohol, kissing and non-vegetarian food, even eggs, makes Pushkar sound a little uninviting. But, with numerous temples clustered around the sacred lake it is a pleasantly pedestrian, laid-back centre of Hindu pilgrimage with a nice feel to it.
Wedding season celebrations bring the streets alive with brass bands and fireworks right into the early hours but the drought conditions make for a dry lake and less picturesque views - imagine cool blue water! Hotel Everest is pleasant enough with reasonable en-suites and a rooftop restaurant with a panoramic view.
Jaipur and Pushkur photos.

Agra

Thursday 3 December: Agra Fort alone would put this small riverside town on the tourist map, but add to that the Tomb of Itimad-ud-Jadlah or 'Baby Taj' on the north bank of the Yamuna river and Agra is unmissable. A bicycle rickshaw (36th mode of transport) tour across the chaotic bridge is a fascinating way to see street life - from bikes piled high with tobacco leaf to fruit and veg laden hand-carts.
There is also another, larger monument to death - not disappointing in any respect . . . the Taj Mahal. Built by emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for second wife Mumtaz Mahal, his son imprisoned the old emperor in Agra Fort overlooking the Taj, presumably for squandering his inheritance on such a grand project - but aren't we all glad he did.
Day trip to the fortified ancient, short-lived, capital of the Mughal empire, Fatehpur Sikri.
Chilled beers in the local Jaiwal Bar accompanied by piping hot freshly-roasted peanuts with onion and herbs is how salted peanuts should be served.
Agra views.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Delhi

Thursday 26 November: India's fragrant capital with it's great Red Fort in the old town and Jama Mosque, India's largest, with it's climbable minaret overlooking the fort.
In New Delhi the National Museum in Janpath has fine galleries. The
exquisite Dancing Girl (2,7000-2,000 BC) from the Harappan Civilisation, bronze Standing Buddha (2 AD), Kushan Dynasty, the seductive looking terracotta Ganga with her water pot (5 AD) and the bronze Vishnu in his wheel were among my favourites, together with the gruesome weapons and fantastic red, blue and gold feather earrings.
Away from the hub-bub of traffic near Delhi Gate the peacefulness and tranquility of Humayun's Tomb was a welcome surprise, even the much smaller Isa Khan Tomb in the same complex was a delight.
Next day the old fort - Purana Qala - spoiled a bit for me by the vodofone boating lake (the locals love it) has impressive gateways and trees, and at Gandhi Smri you can trace the great man's last steps, literally.
I always used to stay in the old Raj style Imperial, but it's become part of a chain so this time I opted for a backpacker cheapie in the lively Paharganj area,
handy for New Delhi station and the train to Agra.
Delhi in pictures.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

India: Amristar

Tuesday 24 November: Bright yellow pilgrim bus (35th mode of transport) to the serene jewel-in-the-crown of Sikh worship - Amristar's Golden Temple. Unlike Muslim Mecca, pilgrims of all creeds are welcome. A lunch of vegetable curry, rice, dhal, chapatis and a delicious rice pudding with fruit is served up with practiced ease - the massive food hall churning out 60,000 plus meals a day, every day. Food, dorm accommodation and the pilgrim bus are free, though a small donation is expected and willingly given. Bumped into Kevin again as we raced here from the border - he won.
A trek away from the vicinity of the temple finds a roadside shack 'English Wine and Beer Store' and my first beer for a long long time . . . ice cold.
Amristar views.

Pakistan and India border

Monday 23 November: Autorickshaw, local bus and a short rickshaw ride to stay the night at the Pakistan border post of Wagah. Why? - to see the bizarre daily border-closing ceremony - of course. Taken very seriously by the military on both sides who face-off against each other to the cheers of crowds whipped to a frenzy by a flag carrying cheer-leaders - to me it looks more like a Monty Python Ministry of Funny Walks sketch - both sides being nuclear powers does take the humour out of it a somewhat. Met up with Kevin who cycled there for the same reason.
Pakistan and India border pictures.
Next day across the border to India - must be the only border in the world that actively encourages photography, you can just see Kevin and his heavily-laden bike.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Lahore

Thursday 19 November: Arrived 8:00 am at Lahore City Station and made a bee line for Regale Internet Inn in Regale Chowk - a traveller's favourite with dorm beds, kitchen, twin-tub washing machine, Karim international supermarket on the corner and unique access to Sufi religious ceremonies courtesy of the influential owner, Mr Malik. Touched base with Kevin who from Tullamore who had cycled from Ireland following much of the same route I had taken.
Autorickshaw (34th mode of transport) to Lahore Fort with it's magnificent gateway completed by Emperor Akbar in 1566 is surprisingly pretty inside complimented by the beautiful red sandstone and white marble Badshahi Mosque opposite.
Mr Malik (sitting between the drummers) organised an afternoon of Sufi religion Qawwali singing at Data Dabar and an evening of Sufi spinning and whirling dancing, free apart from the rickshaw. An hospitable family insisted on buying us all afternoon tea in the park and showered us with farewell gifts of Sufi bracelets.
Lahore Museum also a real delight - I especially liked the art, the bits of rubble from the Berlin Wall and Kim's Gun described by Kippling in his great novel, Kim.
Lahore pictures.

Pakistan: Taftan and Quetta

Monday 16 November: Often described as hell-on-earth, Taftan is the border town on the edge of Pakistan's lawless state of Baluchistan. Decided not to stay the night (the only 'tourist hotel' had closed) and await the twice-monthly freight train to Quetta due sometime the next day. Tried to keep a low profile on the truly bone-jarring overnight bus ride on pot-holed dirt roads through gravel desert to Quetta - only hit my head on the roof twice.
Quetta photos.
Wednesday 18: Over reacted to the bus discomfort and took a relatively expensive 1st class air-conditioned 24-hour sleeper train (33rd mode of transport) from Quetta's delightful little station to Lahore. A senior railway official travelling in the same compartment with myself, a government cadre and a young physician from Yemen insisted, under protest, on buying all my food and drink - hospitality is important in Pakistan.
After several hours the air conditioning was freezing and we were all wearing jackets and overcoats. I stayed in the warm corridor, cloudy with desert dust, for a while. When I explained to the railway guy why I preferred to be in the dust he instantly arranged for the whole carriage to have warm air conditioning. 'I am very sorry Sir, I thought the Scottish liked it cold' - Pakistan hospitality!

Iran summary

Water: Bottled mineral water cheap and readily available. You can drink the tap water in most cities but it tastes earthy in desert areas.
Drinks: Beer - Various malty drinks (0.0% alcohol), a few actually taste like beer. Tea - black tea available everywhere. Coffee - less so.
Toilets: Mostly upright and squat in hotels, places to visit and trains. Squat only in public and cafe loos.
Currency:
Rial (currently £1 = 15,000 rial).
Language: Farsi (Persian) both spoken and written - Salaam alaykum is hello and goes a long way. Most youngsters and those in the tourist trade speak some English.
TICs: Helpful with free local town maps and guides if available.
Accommodation: B&B is the norm
.
Food: Meat and chicken kebabs with rice and salad are common everywhere. Breakfasts are, more often than not, a fried egg, white cheese, butter, carrot jam (tastes better than it sounds) and honey with flat bread and black tea (Çay).
Supermarkets: Widespread but anonymous and hard to find, look for shopping trolleys in shop doorways.
Transport: Trains are cheap, comfortable and less than half the price of buses, 1st class sleepers especially so, book ahead if possible.
Buses are quicker but more expensive.
Medical: Good quality health care available, doctors will treat visitors for a fee.

Bam and Zahedan

Saturday 14 November: Arrived in Bam and the Akbar Tourist Guesthouse. The town was devastated by an earthquake in 2004 and, though many still live and trade from shipping container boxes, it is gradually being rebuilt in brick reinforced with steel. A Japanese traveller was kidnapped from Bam's streets in 2007 by one of the local drug lords. Someday tourists will return. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office warns against travel to and east of Bam . . .
Bam photos.
Early 6:00am bus east to Zahedan where most travellers are given a police escort. Slipped through the security net to share a taxi to the border with a couple of Pakistani guys, wonder if I stand out in a crowd?

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Persian Gulf

Wednesday 11 November: Overnight bus to Bandar Abbas and bumpy half-hour speed boat (31st mode of transport) to Qeshum Island and town. Next day pick-up truck taxi (32nd mode) south, along the coast, to the historic port and the, traditional and attractive air-conditioning, wind towers of Laft.
Qeshum Island photos.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Kerman and the Klauts

Friday 6 November: Arrived at the expensive, but good value, Akhavan Hotel in the desert city of Kerman. Comfortable, stylish room plus very good restaurant serving a set multi-course 'buffet' dinner with 'beer' for 90,000 rials (£6). Visa extended fairly painlessly.
Sunday 8: Day trip by local shared taxi to Mahan and the Aramgah-e Shah Ne'matollah Vali, a climbable dervish tomb, with views from the rooftop and twin minarets. Also, a three mile walk north is Bagh-e Shahzde, qanat irrigated walled water-gardens on the edge of the desert.
Monday 9: Local bus day trip to Arge-Rayen a great mud-brick citadel, now uninhabited, above the town of Rayen.

Tuesday 10: Finally relaxed in Kerman bazaar, the Masjed-e Ganjali-khan mosque and restored Hamam-e Ganjali-khan opposite now bathouse museum with fine tilework and amusing frescoes. In the afternoon I was kindly given a tour of the Sanati Museum of Contemporary Art by attractive artist Efat Takalloo. Her gallery of paintings of historical tiles, a real the highlight, unfortunately all sold, as a collection, to a dealer in Singapore.

Wednesday 11: Expensive 'dar baste' (closed door) private taxi 100 miles into the Dasht-e Lut Desert to see the Klauts - a spectacular landscape of wind eroded 'sand castles' stretching 150 miles across the arid plains.
Photos of Kerman and around.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Susa and Choqa Zanbil

Monday 2 November: Early local bus from Ahvez to Shush (biblical Susa) and the grubby overpriced Apadana Hotel. Not much to see in town apart from the 'castle', built by the French to protect their archaeologists against hostile tribesmen and the pine-cone shaped dome of Daniel's tomb.
The real delight and reason for visiting the area is the red brick-built Choqa Zanbil ziggurat UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built before 7th century BC it's the world's oldest example of Elamite architecture. Only the base and lower levels remain of the original five storeys but the outer kiln-fired bricks appear new with legible cuneiform inscriptions, the world's first written alphabet.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Shiraz and Persepolis

Thursday 29 October: Bus with Rita, Matt and Ivan to Shiraz and the Sasan Hotel. Explored Shiraz with Ivan, an affable Hong Kong police officer with two-weeks holiday in Iran: Rouzbahan Tomb, Karimkhan Castle with its leaning tower, Eram Palace Gardens, the Military Museum housed in the shah's former palace surrounded by Affifabad Garden with it's tilled teahouse depicting ancient legends. A local 22 year old Iranian computer technician, proud of his city, gave us his time and paid all our taxi and entrance fees, he wouldn't accept a penny, and we really tried - this is typical Iranian hospitality.
Day trip with the guys in Moses' car to see the full glory of Persia's 400 BC Achaemenid empire at Persepolis (UNESCO World Heritage Site), and also Sassanian bas-reliefs at Naqsh-e Rajab and rock-carved tombs at Naqsh-i Rustam. Ended the day with a farewell 'wild night' dinner at Sharzeh Traditional Teahouse with folk music, fine food and wine glasses brimming with Sharaz's finest. Said goodbye to Ivan, Hong Kong Rita who is flying to Egypt then back to India, Nepal and mainland China and Canadian Matt who is heading for India.
Sunday 1 November: Visited mausoleum of revered Iranian poet Havez, Jahan Nama Garden and bumped into Joules again on his way to Tehran to fly to Damascus. His top lip healing up nicely from frostbite in Nepal.
Photos of Shiraz and Rersepolis.
Overnight bus westward (just for a change) to Ahvas near the Iraq border.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Yazd

Tuesday 27 October: Following Marco Polo's route east to the ancient desert oasis town of Yazd and the mud-brick built Silk Road Hotel set around a pleasantly cool courtyard restaurant.
Amir Chakhmaq with it's three-storey high arched alcoves is the heart of the old town with the Water Museum and several mosques nearby including the 15th century Jaame Mosque with 48 metre high twin minarets and orange dome. Out of town, the hill-top Towers of Silence were used by the Zorastrian priests to lay-out the dead for birds to pick the bones clean so as not to pollute the purity of the earth and air - some lessons could be learned here.
Day trip in hired taxi into the desert with fellow travellers Rita, Matt and Ivan to Meybod, Chak Chak ('drip drip') and Kharanaq. Visited Meybod's crumbling mud-brick Narein Castle, domed ice storage house and impressive 4,000 perch pigeon tower. Chak Chak, a Zorastrian pilgrimage site where the princess Nikbanuh fled the invading Arabs in 637 AD and escaped into the mountain leaving only her scarf and the 'drip drip' of her tears behind. Kharanaq, a deserted mud brick village since the 1970's, when the whole population moved, across the road, to a modern village where piped water, gas and electricity were provided. Only the old-village mosque remains in use.
Photos of Yazd and around.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Esfahan

Fiday 23 October: We arrived early, shared a room in the backpacker's favourite - Amir Kabir Hostel, before exploring the sights of Esfahan.The 11th century Jame Mosque, Iran's oldest and the finest remaining example of Seljuk architecture.
The magnificent showpiece of Safavid architecture is the grand Imam Square built in 1602 (UNESCO World Heritage Site) -
the 'Royal Crescent' of the east. The vast open space, surrounded by two great blue-tiled mosques, Ali and Sheikh Lotfollah, the majestic Ali Qapu Palace with its music room ceiling of vase stenciling to enhance the acoustics, and rows of arched shop fronts leading to the bazaar.
Chehelsotun Museum palace of '40 wooden pillars', there are actually 20 pillars plus their reflection in the ornate pool, is set in quiet gardens nearby.
At the southern end of town the, often dry, river Zayadeh is spanned two fine 17th century bridges, Si-o-Seh Bridge and Khaju Bridge. The 33 arch Si-o-Seh leads to Jolfa, the Armenian Christian quarter, with a few churches and Vank Cathedral crammed full with frescoes (no photos).
Photos of Esfahan
.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Tehran

Monday 19 October: From Tehran station a walk to the french designed Tehran Metro (29th mode of transport) at Mowlavi station for red no 1 line, three stops north, to Imam Khomeni Square and then a short stroll to Firouzeh Hotel run by Mr Mousavi, the most hospitable hotelier you're ever likely to meet.
Not a pretty capital, more of a working city, but with some hidden gems. The National Jewelry Museum with armed guards, body scans and searches to protect the vault (no cameras). Wonderful national treasures including a 30 inch, 1869 vintage, world globe with seas of green emeralds, lands of red rubies and, Britain, France and Iran shown in sparkling diamonds. Dinner with Suzie, a Swiss tourist travelling alone.
Next day, Golestan Palace, an oasis of peace and quiet in traffic congested city streets, and the National Museum of Iran with the amusing bronze statue of a shrunken-headed prince among the artifacts. Joules, a recent Christchurch College Oxford graduate travelling through the Middle East to Palestine, and I saw Suzie off to the station and dinned on dizi (soup and stew), yogurt, tea and dates at Azari Traditional Teahouse near the station.
Wednesday 31: Metro to the wealthy, less polluted, north and Sa'dabad Museum complex - it's military museum (not seen a kalashnikov close-up before), the Green (not open) and Mellat or White Palace, former royal residence of the Shah, looks like an office block from the outside and a second-hand furniture emporium from the inside. You must question the man's taste. The giant pair of boots at the entrance are all that remains of the huge bronze statue of Reza Shah, cut down to size after the revolution. Dinner with Joules, and my first 'beer' in Iran, in Khayyam Traditional Teahouse
Thursday: We took the10:45, 6-berth sleeper express train (30th mode) for the seven hour trip to Esfahan.
Photos of Tehran.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Zanjan and Soltaniyeh

Saturday 17 October: Eastward to Zanjan and hidden among a row of oily garages is the 400 year old Karavansara Sanga restaurant (not signed in English) an appropriate setting for a feast of kebabs, rice, salad, yogurt and a large pot of tea.
Day trip to see the great Soltaniyeh dome, with its eight minarets, the tallest brick-built dome in the world and an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Photos of Zanjan and Soltaniyeh.
Astonishingly comfortable 1st class compartment on the 7:10 am 4-hour express train to Tehran, including light breakfast, for just 20,000 rials (about £1.50).

Iran: Tabriz

Wednesday 14 October: Now in Tabriz, Iran. Crossing land borders is always stressful - heat, hassle, guarding your gear, changing money, new strange currency, waiting in crowded queues . . . It should take 3-4 hours to get through to Iran but I was fast-tracked through in 30 minutes.
Why - because the fingerprint office is on the Iranian side! Apparently it's in response to the Americans fingerprinting Iranian nationals entering the US. From Maku, near the border took an old mahmooly 'normal' Mercedes bone-shaker bus (27th mode of transport) to Trabiz.
In the evening drank lots of tea with some students who asked very blunt questions, and some difficult ones to answer: When did you first have a girlfriend, how much is a cup of tea in London, how old is Buckingham Palace, what is your salary, why would you marry a woman who has been with another man, why do you think few tourists now come to Iran - no bars or beer with alcohol - I steered clear of political answers.
Thursday 15: Morning tea with the charming Mansur Khan, who runs the tourist office. He pointed me in the direction of , Rahmama Dairy (signed in Farsi only), a good traditional breakfast cafe - freshly baked sweet yellow bread with clotted cream and comb honey - unforgettably delicious and only 12,000 rials (about 80p).
Savari shared taxi (28th mode) to disappointing troglodyte village of Kandovan followed by a dinner of dizi (meat and bean soup and stew) in the refurbished 19th century Nober Bathouse, now the delightful Shahriar Restaurant and teahouse.
I do have a good feeling about Iran and think I'll like it here but I'm getting more nervous about Pakistan - may get a ferry from Bandar Abbas in Iran to Sharjah in UAE and fly Air Arabia (Arab equivalent Easy Jet) to Delhi and miss out Pakistan altogether.
Photos of Tabriz.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Doğubayazıt and Mt Ararat

Tuesday 13 October: From the overnight bus around Lake Van I eventually arrived tired and hungry at Hotel Tehran in Doğubayazit just in time for breakfast. Greeted by hazy views of the snow-covered twin-peaks of Mt Ararat from the rooftop breakfast bar. Turkey's highest mountain, you need a permit to climb it - 45 days notice required (next time). Later that day, visited Ishak Pasa Palace perched on a small plateau above the town with tree of life symbology and columed harem. Ate a meal at Yoresel Yemek Evi run by Kurdish wives whose husbands are in prison, drank my last bottle of red wine (for quite a while) and dreamt of Persia . . .
Photos of Mt Ararat and Ishak Pasa Palace.
Turkey summary:
Water: Bottled mineral water, particularly in 5 litre tubs, cheap and readily available.

Drinks: Wine - especially good reds from Pammukale and Cappadocia regions. Beer - Efes brew a good dark beer (6.5%), double roasted malt with a hint of carmel, as well as a 'normal' blonde pilsner (5.0%), a very strong extra (7.5%) and, Gusta, a tastless dark wheat beer (5.0%). Tea - available everywhere, milk less so. Coffee - both Turkish (with grounds) and Nescafe with creamer.
Toilets: Mostly upright in hotels but mostly squat style in places to visit, cafes and trains (Bay=Male, Bayan=female, some also have a graphic) a small fee (about 50TL) is payable.
Currency:
Turkish Lira (currently £1 = 2.4TL).
Language: Merhaba is hi/hello/good day but Salam Alakum also works well for foreigners who can't speak Turkish, lüften is please, teşekkür ederim is thanks, evat is yes and hayır is no.
TICs: Helpful with free local town maps and guides.
Accommodation: B&B is the norm
.
Food: Kebaps and salad are kings but also pide (Turkish pizza) especially the thin lahamachan pide and soups (Çorba) are a treat. Breakfasts are, more often than not, a hearty spread of boiled egg, white and yellow cheese, butter, jam and honey with as much fresh bread and tea (Çay) as you can swallow.
Supermarkets: Small and medium sized local stores are easy to find in town centres with larger stores, often the French Carrefour chain, on the outskirts.
Transport: Trains are more comfortable and less than half the price of buses. Rail return tickets are 20% less than the single fare and 1st class couchette sleepers with breakfast car are great.

Medical: Health Centres or private doctors, in most towns, will treat visitors for a fee.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Malatya and Nemrut Daği

Wednesday 7 October: Arrived at Malatya's pretty station refreshed - given a very comfortable suite in Malatya Büyük Otel with views over the faithful and the central mosque. Overnight excursion to see Nemrut Daği's massive earthquake-toppled heads at dusk and dawn. Built by a pre-Roman local king who is thought to be entombed beneath the giant hill of loose chippings piled behind the statue terraces.
Malatya and Nemrut Daği photos.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Ankara

Wednesday 30 September: The old city way of life survives in the 9th century AD Byzantine-built citadel. Older columns and broken marble statues have been reworked into the fortifications. Beneath the walls the chronologically organised national Museum of Anatolian Civilisations has superb artefacts from all over Anatolia including many female idols of worship spanning the centuries - nothing new there.
The vast expanse of Kemal Atatürk's Mausoleum (Anıt Kabir) with it's heavily armed guards and tight security indicate the esteem for which the founder of modern Turkey is still held. Fascinating museum too of his life and military campaigns (no photos - strictly enforced).
Fine Painting and Sculpture Museum and even a great Open-Air Steam Train Museum where you can clamber all over the engines, every schoolboy's dream - yes I had time to kill in Ankara . . .
The Iran Visa Comedy of Errors:
Wednesday 30 September: Arrived Ankara in the early morning, booked into my hotel and went straight to Iran Embassy on the other side of town. Tried the door, locked and
the intercom wires hanging in mid-air. Opening times 12:00 - 8:30, so I went for a walk and came back at 12:30. Tried the door again, locked. Rattled the door, locked. The penny dropped that Persian is written from right to left so the Embassy is open mornings from 8:30 to 12:00 midday!
Thursday 1 October: Went back in the morning, rattled the door, locked. Waited bemused when two Iranians walked up "you need to rattle the door hard the intercom is broken". They shook the door hard for a minute or so and it clicked open - I entered a plush, comfortable reception area with helpful smiling staff but no record of my visa application approval. "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran is closed for the Iranian weekend on Thursdays and Fridays and we are closed for the Turkish weekend Saturday and Sunday - if only you had come in yesterday we could have sorted it out straight away. Come back on Monday."
Monday 5 October: Intercom on the door is fixed and after phone calls and faxes to Tehran approval is eventually given (it had been sent to the London Embassy) and I rush off to the Embassy bank, nearby, to deposit payment (90 Euro) and return with a receipt. It's Monday and there is a long queue. I get back to the Embassy just before midday. The intercom crackles "Embassy closed, come back tomorrow."
Tuesday 6: Helpful staff provide visa in minutes and finally I depart Ankara in a very comfortable overnight 1st class sleeper (16 hours) with elegant breakfast car. Next stop Malatya.

Pictures of Ankara.

Cappadocia

Saturday 26 September: Fabulous hiking country through 'fairy-chimney' and phallic landscapes with intriguing names like Zemi (Love) Valley, Güllüdere (Rose) and Kızıçukur (Red) Valleys, Bağli Dere (White) Valley, Güvercinlik Vadisi (Pigeon Valley).
Sampled Turusan Winery wines in Ürgüp with a couple of New Zealand women one who had lived in Southfields, London for a couple of years, not very fruity - more of an aquired taste.
Met up again with Canadian 'bible-basher' Neil who squeezed into many of the rock-cut churches, packed-full with tour group herds, in Göreme Open-Air Museum.
Excellent value Shoestring Cave Pension, just 15TL (£7) for B&B in an excavated four-bed en-suite 'cave'. Shared travel stories and bottles of red wine with, roomate and former high-flying diplomat, Neil who had been stationed in Honduras, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Bus and shuttle bus to Kayseri's bright pink station for overnight Pullman train to Ankara.
Strange and mysterious photos of
Göreme and around.

Lycian or Turquoise Coast

Sunday 20 September: Hair-raising dolmus ride along unprotected sheer cliff-edge, with driver smoking, talking on his mobile and speeding at the same time, to Faralya village with steep roped decent to Butterfly Valley. Stayed in one of George House's very reasonably priced green-roofed 'bungalows' (garden shed), just 35TL for half-board (about £15).
Next day, onward to Kaş and day trip to Santa Clause's birthplace (sorry kids it's not the North Pole) and impressive Lycian remains busy with tour bus groups dog-tagged with their tour name and bus number (lest they get lost), Demre and Myra.
Eastward again to stay in 'tree-house' (hut on stilts in orchard) at Çiralı beach to visit ruins and eternal flames on the slopes of Mt Olympos fed by seeping natural gas since ancient times, the stuff of legends, Olympos and Chimaera. I was followed, possibly led, around Olympos by the cheerful red-setter from the pension. Finally on to the regional capital with it's great museum and nearby amphitheatre in fabulous mountain setting, Antalya and Termessos. In the museum's Hall of Emperors', with statues from Perge dating from the 2nd Century AD, 'The Dancer' carved from two different coloured marbles is just outstanding.
Joined by Neil "Popeye" Mussel (because he looks like 'Popeye' Doyle in movie The French Connection), a retired Canadian diplomat and a couple of young yanks, on holiday from studying in Cairo, for the taxi-ride (26th mode of transport) from Sabah Pansiyon through Hadrian's Gate in Kaltiçi (Old Antalya) to Termessos.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Fethiye

Thursday 17 September: Boat harbour with Crusader castle remains, Lycian rock hewn sarcophagi and cliff-cut tombs. Departure point for Gület yacht (25th mode of transport) voyages along Anatolia's Turquoise Coast. Also the starting point of the Lycian Way coast path which I hiked as far as Kayaköya, an eerie 'ghost' village abandoned in 1923 when the Orthodox Christian Greek population were repatriated following the Turkish War of Independence.
Organised by Ideal Pension, I joined the Kardesler 5 for an enjoyable island-hopping day ending in a violent thunderstorm with lightning forks igniting the damp hillside.
In and around Fethiye.

Pamukkale

Tuesday 15 September: One of the world's great natural features the hot travertine (calcium carbonate) pools of Pamukkale ('Cotton Castle') are a delight. Stayed in the bright red Dört Mevsim (Four Seasons) Hotel downhill in Pamukkale village to enjoy the shelves and pools at dusk, as well as some of the red wines for which the region is also rightly famous.
Photos of Pamukkale and Hierapolis.

Selçuk and Ephesus

Sunday 13 September: Storks nesting in Byzantine aquaducts are icons of Selçuk with Artemis Temple's one remaining pillar (once of one of the seven wonders of the world), İsa Bey Mosque, St John's Church and ancient fortress above, all in the town centre with the ancient city of Ephesus (Efes) close by.
Saw Joan Baez perform at Ephesus in 1984? where she sang "Turn Turn" to get the riot police, with shields, battons and helmets facing the audience, to turn around so they could see the concert. The Library of Celsus and the Temple of Hadrian also still impressive. Efes Museum's famous effigy the rampant Phallic God, Priapus, is missed by many tour bus groups as they rush through - displayed in a dark cabinet, you need to push the light button to illuminate the little guy in all his well proportioned glory. The carving of the marble statues of Aphrodite and the multi-breasted Artemis is just exquisite.
An afternoon at the quiet Pamucak beach and an evening drinking delicous Efes Dark, as opposed to Efes 'Normal', in the Pink Bistro in Selçuk rounded off another good day. Stayed at Kiwi Pension where the English proprioter, Alison, also saw Joan Baez's show 25 years ago at Ephesus.
Selçuk and Ephesus photos.

Troy and Gallipoli

Wednesday 9 September: From Europe to Asia by roll-on roll-off sea ferry (24th mode of transport) over the Dardinelles (Hellespoint) from Gallipoli peninsula to Çanakkale and Yellow Rose Pension.
Not a lot to see of the nine ancient cities of Troy (Troia) except a wooden Trojan horse with windows. The one in Çanakkale made for the 2004 Troy movie is a bit more authentic and artifacts from Troy are in the Çanakkale's Archaelogical Museum (photos not permitted).

Knee deep in mud in Gallipoli's WWI trenches just too realistic so I visited Kilitbahir's fortress across the narrows on Gallipoli instead. Returned to Asia again to explore Çanakkale's Military Museum which tells the stories of the sea and land battles reasonably well. The most facinating war relic, which gives a chilling reminder of just how much ammunition was flying around, is two bullets welded together as they hit each other in mid-air.
For photos in and around Çanakkale click Troy and Gallipoli.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Istanbul

Saturday 5 September: From Istanbul's main Otogar (bus station), by the Metro electric Light Rail Transit (20th mode of transport) then modern tram, to the Blue Mosque in Sultanahamet, the ancient city centre, and breakfast nearby at Sultan Hostel.
Beautifully tiled Blue Mosque and finely proportioned Aya Sofya with it's superb interior - just breathtaking. Cool subterranian Basilica Cistern with Medusa heads at odd angles supporting the original columns.
Monday 7:Topkapi Palace former royal residence with impressive domes, tilework and views over the Bosphoros and Golden Horn. Mostly enslaved white Christian females and black eunnuchs lived their lives within the confines of the palace Harem. Men and even unsliced fruit and vegetables were banned from the Harem complex lest they spoil the Sultan's ladies. It's told how the chosen female would wriggle from the foot of the Sultan's bed up under the covers to approach him from below. One Sultan had a particular appetite for struggling virgins who were encouraged to kick and fight for his added pleasure. Another, the mad one, tied his whole harem in weighted sacks and drowned them in the Bospherous.
The treasures and humour in the Archeological Museum are wonderful. Folowing a fish lunch sandwich I crossed Galata Bridge and took The Tunel funicular railway (21st mode) below Galata Tower to connect with the quaint antique red brass and wood tram (22nd mode) through the modern shopping centre to Taksim Square.
Next day Museum of İslamic Art and the Modern Art gallery, cruised the Bosphoros and Golden Horn in the passanger ferries Polaris and Yeni Menderes (23rd modes) before finishing off the evening in the bars in Akbıyık Sokak, the accommodatiom street, in Sultanahamet. Great city, I stayed two more days than intended and would still return for more. My Istanbul photos should say it all.
Wednesday 9: Poured down with rain as I left Istanbul on the overnight coach for Gallipoli, saw several abandoned cars in underpass flood waters, but the bus got through. Heard two days later that 37 people were killed in the freak floods.


Bulgaria's Black Sea Coast

Thursday 27 August: Arrive at Varna's eager to please Yo-Ho Hostel, beach busy with local townsfolk but good Archaeological Museum and Art Gallery featuring, once again, the work of Vladimir Dimitrov. His portrait of a Peasant Girl particularly impressive. Shaded cliff-top Primorski Park stretches a couple of miles east to the dolphinarium. Intriguingly named Sold Bride House of Wine restaurant a good fınd, near the hostel, but not in any guide books.
Sunday 30: Down the coast to Nessebar, rich in ruined churches but nearby "Sunny Beach" jam-packed towel-to-towel with package tourists. Stayed en-suite in Hotel Tony in the UNESCO listed old town above on the peninsula.
Tuesday 1 September: en-suite room in private wooden house in the old fortified peninsula town of Sozopol then on to Burges to await the Friday night midnight coach to Istanbul. Small Archaeological Museum, quiet beach with long Soviet style pier and monument to match but with good atmosphere and restaurants. Refreshing and delicious meal of Tarator (chilled cucumber and yogurt soup garnished with chopped walnuts and dill) with freshly-baked bread, olives and garlic butter followed by pear, blue cheese and walnut salad then chocolate topped cheesecake and white (clear) local grape brandy at Monte Cristo's, despite what the guidebooks say, the best restaurant in town.
Photos of Varna, Nessebar, Sozopol and Burges.
Bulgaria summary:
Water: Delicious and free mineral water from public drinking fountains and spouts.

Drinks: Wine - very drinkable whites and reds particularly Melnik and Mavud. Beer - Stara Zagora's brewery produces a decent bottled dark beer but their Zagorka lager is uninspiring. See Sofia entry for Bulgaria's best ales. Tea - wide selection of delicious fruit and herb teas.
Toilets: Upright, clean and free at places to visit (M=Male, a spider-like Cyrillic symbol=female, most also have a graphic) otherwise a small fee (about 0.5 lv) is payable.
Currency:
Leva (currently £1 = 2.4 lv).
Language: Dobber Den is hi/hello/good day, molyuh is please, merci is thanks, Chao is bye, da is yes, ne is no and Nazdrave! is Cheers!.
TICs: Helpful if you ask with free local town maps and guides. Will book accommodation for you.
Accommodation: Can be B&B or bed only
so you need to ask.
Food: Good variety of local dishes and, of course, both pizza and kebaps - usually rolled up wıth French fries. Taratore (cucumber and yogurt soup) delicious.
Supermarkets: Small mini-markets mostly, some called Maxi, larger unnamed ones tend to be hidden-away in the basements of larger shopping complexes.
Transport: Trains are comfortable and cheaper than buses. Return tickets are double the single fare.

Medical: Health Centres or private doctors, in most towns, will treat visitors on the same basis as nationals.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Veliko Tarnovo

Monday 24 August: Ancient capital and fortress town of Veliko Tarnovo, complete wıth hilltop church and execution rock where traitors took the plunge down to the meandering loops of the Yantra River gorge below. Picked up from station by Toshe from Hiker's Hostel in his gas-powered Peugeot Partner car (19th mode of transport).
Fun evening watching the castle sound and light show from the hostel balcony with two beer-swilling Hungarian bikers, the cheery one with the unforgettable name of Attila, Maria, the day receptionist and Dyanna, the night one. Like an episode from Men Behaving Badly - we drank the place dry, almost. Snippets of conversation follow. Dyanna on the subject of names: "My name is Deeanna, not like Lady Dianna, it's a man's name". Me on the subject of girls "I love the sexy way Bulgarian girls say yes" (a lazy sheepish-like swaying shake of the head from left to right) to the agreement of all the guys. Maria: "They also say no!" (demonstrating wıth a sharp backward nod of the head), laughter all round. Atilla on the subject of Guinness "If I wanted a drink that tasted like coffee, I'd drink coffee". Maria: "I will be back tomorrow morning to make coffee for your hangovers". Dyanna on the subject of bribe-taking traffic police: "Beggars in uniform". Maria next day looking in the fridge, disgusted but laughing: "Aagh - you have left only milk!".
Next day short 9 mile hike from hostel along the escarpment to Preobrazhenski Monastery where falling boulders 'miraculously' split apart to avoid hitting the monastery or the bee-keeping monks.
Pictures of Veliko Tarnavo. East agaın by prıvate bus to Varna and the sea.

Plovdiv

Thursday 20 August: Bulgaria's cultured second city, Plovdiv, with ancient Thracian and Roman remains as well as Revival-period architecture, house museums and great art galleries in cobbled old hilltop town.
Roman amphitheatre, now a city icon, is remarkable as it was only rediscovered after a freak landslip in 1972. The municipal Cıty Art Gallery shows the typical broad confident Autumnal brushstrokes of a master, Vladimir Dimitrov. Not one of his . . . 'The Mad Woman' reminded me of an ex-gırlfriend. Philipopolis, opposite, encourages photography and both the furnishings and temporary exhibits reflect the quality of the paintings. Vladimir Dimitrov's works prevail but, amongst others, Dimitar Kazakov's Figure Composition and Mihail Lyutov's Railway Station have traveller appeal. Below, the contemporary gallery has modern depictions of old religious themes and the outdoor Red Pony Gallery, up the hill, also sells artworks.
Spotted a cellar own-brew bar from the street wıth real lager but it lacked atmosphere, Naylona bar packed with atmosphere but lacked decent beer. Plovdiv Guesthouse in the heart of the old town, just 18 lv (9 euro) for B&B. Click Plovdiv for photograph art show. Train northeast to Veliko Tarnavo.


Rila and Pirin Mountains

Saturday 15 August: direct 10:20am bus from Sofia's southern Ovcha Kupel bus station to UNESCO World Heritage Site of Rila Monastery. Guiltily smuggled a bottle of Melnik red wine into my basic 52 'cell' bedroom and was punished for my sin by vivid nightmares of hook-nosed demons with chains and spears tormenting sinners in various stages of nakedness. See my photos of Rila Monastery. Glad to board the bus from Rila to Blagoevgrad (in Cyrillic script) and on to Sandanski's Grozdan Hotel (comfortable en-suite room with TV and fridge) in the Pirin Mountains.
S
aturday 17: day trip further into the mountains where I celebrated my birthday tasting wine and cheese in the cave-cellars below the eroded sandstone 'pyramids' of Melnik from where Churchill once imported wine by the barrel-load. Dined lavishly in Tropicana at the top of town, Sandanski, to finish off a good day.
Next morning on to ski resort of Bansco, chock-full of mehanas or traditional-style taverns, for a bit of gentle hiking on the heavily-forested lower slopes of the Pirins, but difficult without a guide as 1:50,000 maps show ski-runs but not footpaths - a lot of bloody use in the Summer. Then eastward once again and over the Rila Mountains by slow but delightful narrow-gauge scenic railway (18th mode of transport) from Bansco, via the Balkan's highest railway station of Avramovo, before corkscrewing down through numerous tunnels and racing slow-moving cars and a swift river to Septemvri for mainline to Plovdin.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Bulgaria: Sofia

Sunday 9 August: Compact city-centre and leafy tree-lined boulevards of Sofia with a great symbolic statue, cathedral and sunken churches. Colourful former mineral baths next to piping-hot spa where locals and visitors alike fill-up their drinking bottles with free mineral water. One remaining mosque and two central gold-domed Russian churches, one small and pretty and one large with holy icon collection in crypt. Russian statues too, now neglected and struggling against the elements. Museums and art galleries well worth it: Goshka Datsov's Dream of Mary Magdalene shockingly, almost pornographic. Also, changing of the guard ceremony, every hour, on the hour, a real crowd pleaser.
Day trip by marshroutki (17th mode of transport), city minibus 21 to Boyana. Tiny Boyana Church with two layers of murals inside. The earlier 1259 layer showing static figures and the top one depicting animated figures. Nearby the National Museum of History has hordes of Thracian gold treasure including drinking goblets in the shape of animal heads.
Sofia very laid-back in August, like a Sunday every day. Great little microbrewery pub Pri Kmeta just north-west the large Russian Aleksander Nevski Church for a bite to eat with dippy English girl, Julia, and a jug or two of delicious dark 'unfiltered' real ale at about 1.5 euro a pint - Nazdrave! (Julie who spent two days washing and caring for a tiny, abandoned flea-bitten, worm-ridden kitten on death row - hope she survived).
See my photos of Sofia and away-day to see Bulgarian National Revival-period house architecture in Koprivshtitsa heritage village where the disastrous but ultimately successful 1878 April Uprising, against the Turkish 'yoke' began.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Serbia

Sunday 2 August: Belgrade - not only a change from Catholicism to Serbian Orthodox and from Roman alphabet to Cyrillic script but also from the Kuna to the Dinara and to suddenly to much more affordable prices. Overlooking the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers Kalemagdan Citadel, or Belgrade Fortress, remains a popular hang out for locals and visitors alike. Uncool, or ultra cool, to take the toy tourist train (13th mode of transport) to Belgrade Military Museum to see, amongst others, captured US prisoner uniforms and fragments of stealth bombers displayed next to small-arms taken from Kosovo militia? Rocking, reeling, rolling ride on antiquated, communist era, red number 2 tram (14th mode) around the city centre far better than the hop-on, hop-off tourist bus option.
Cultured, pedestrianised shopping promenade, Knez Mihailova is dubbed silicon ridge by local wags due to the quality and quantity of fashionably low-cut devas taking summer evening strolls. Better value restaurants, like Ima Dana, in cobbled Skadarska have more traditional musical entertainment. Annoyingly all the city plans and guide books maps are in tourist-friendly Roman script whereas in reality all street name signs are exclusively in Cyrillic.
The biggest Orthodox church in the world, Sava's Temple, the Bank of Serbia Museum (who say they will print any face on a banknote) and Marshal Tito's grave in Yugoslav Museum, by number 41 bendy-bus (15th mode), all worth the effort. The bus even passes strategic targets,
like the police headquarters, bombed out by NATO in the early 1990s.
Saturday 9 August: Couchette in dilapidated but clean 9:15pm Balkan Express (16th mode) from Belgrade to Sofia.
Photos of Zagreb and day trip to Novo Sad.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Varaždin

Wednesday 29 July: Enjoyable train ride north to Varaždin with museum housed in picturesque castle, fine baroque town architecture and quality accommodation in Studentski Dom, too good for students, spatious en-suite room with free internet, cable TV, and fridge. Day out by bus to fairy-tale like Trakošćan Castle high above relaxing lakeside trail, with original furnishings and nudes by untravelled painter, Europa looking the most charming of the four continents.
Saturday 1 August
: Train eastward again and overnight stopover in Osijek. Then cross-border bus, through war ravaged Vukovar under repair but with guns still in place ranged north over the Danube, eastward to Serbia and Belgrade.
Croatia summary:
Water: Drinkable.

Drinks: Wine - drinkable, just. Beer - dark Velebitsko a treat. Tea - wide selection of delicious fruit and herb teas. Weak English tea is available but if strong is your cuppa, bring your own. Coffee good in bars and restaurants but awful at hotel breakfasts.
Toilets: Upright, clean and free at stations, shopping centres, places to visit, large stores etc (M=Male, Ž=female and most have graphic).
Currency:
Kuna (currently £1 = 8KN).
Language: Croatians in the tourist trade speak a little English. č is pronounced ch as in church, š is pronounced sh as in shower, ž is pronounced sh as in sure and j is pronounced ye as in yes. Dobber Dan is hi/hello/good day, Wahla (as in the French 'there you are' when presenting something) is thank you, prosim is please and no problem is just that.
TICs: Helpful if you ask with free local town maps and guides. Will book accommodation for you.
Accommodation: Bed only
is the norm.
Food: Good variety of local and international dishes and, of course, pizza.
Supermarkets: Konzum mostly but many others like Kerum, Diona ond edge of town Spar, Lidl or Mercator.
Transport: Trains are comfortable and cheaper than equally reliable buses. Return tickets are 20% cheaper than two singles.

Medical: Health Centres, in most towns, will treat visitors. All EU members including Croatians pay 20% of the fee upfront.