Thursday, October 29, 2009

Happy Republic Day!

Today, the glorious Republic of Turkey celebrates 86 years. The festivities are relatively low-key but we were treated to a parade this morning which was a nice start to the day.

We've been busy exploring Cappadocia for the last 4 days and now that the cold front is moving in, Dan and I packed up the tent and will be boarding another bus tonight headed South for the warmer Mediterranean climes of Olympos (home of the gods!).

On Tuesday we visited Goreme's Open Air Museum - a well-preserved cave village that gave us a good idea of the size of the early Christian community and some insight into how they lived. That afternoon we biked over to the next town to explore Zelve, a cave community nestled into 3 adjacent valleys, which we were free to explore at our leisure by hiking along the trails and climbing up the tunnels into the interconnected multi-story chambers. Zelve had been inhabited up until 1952 when the rock began to collapse and the citizens left for Cavusin.

On Wednesday, we rented a scooter and travelled South to Kaymakli and Derinkuyu to visit the underground cities. Our first stop was in Kaymakli, where the smaller city is located, and after lunch, we went to the larger, spectacular site at Derinkuyu. The cities were quite elaborate, 45-55 m underground and 8 levels deep with hundreds of interconnected tunnels and chambers. The troglodytes lived and farmed above the ground but when they were threatened by invaders, they would retreat into their underground city which could house up to 60,000 people for up to 6 months. We had a ball exploring all the passages and tunnels, though it was definitely tougher for Dan who had to crouch to get through most of the city.

This morning, after purchasing our bus tickets and doing our laundry, we went for a hike through Rose Valley. The trail was well marked and well-worn, making for a nice leisurely hike compared to Zemi Valley. The views were absolutely breathtaking and the weather was thankfully cooperative - it was a spectacular way to spend our last morning here. We will miss the natural beauty proliferating in this region and the fantastic Cappadocian cuisine (savoury stews, pottery kebabs, meatballs, Turkish pizzas and apple tea). I cannot wait to come back!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Living the life in Cappadocia

For some strange reason, I thought we'd never make it here but when Dan and I made it to Cappadocia after a tiring 11-hour journey on an overnight bus, we immediately fell in love with the town of Goreme which is our base while we're in the region.

The town is absolutely stunning: We are surrounded on all sides by valleys of fairy chimneys and honeycomb cliffs made of volcanic tuff, which form a truly magical landscape.

Goreme is not the frigid country town we expected it to be. Though it gets chilly at night, the mercury rises all afternoon, with pleasant temperatures in the morning and early evening. We were keen to start exploring however once we found a place to stay - a comfortable, beautiful cave room (we opted for one night of luxury and comfort before setting up camp) - we ended up taking a long nap before exploring Goreme's nightlife (complete with Turkish wine and live music!).

This morning we said goodbye to our gracious host at the Elif Star Caves and returned to more modest digs at the Berlin Campsite, setting up our excellent tent in record time before a full day of hiking and exploration in the Zemi Valley.

We started off visiting a rock-carved frescoed church off the main road. But much of the fun began when we entered the valley tackling a challenging, barely discernible trail that saw us jumping over streams and chasms, walking through orchards, putting our climbing skills to use to bypass rock cliffs, and even walking across a fallen log as if it were a balance beam.

I must give props to my Ecco warm-weather hiking shoes for keeping me sure-footed on the trail. I hadn't used them much since hiking in Panama in 2008 and was worried that maybe they were an indulgent purchase but they've been mighty useful on this trip.

The highlight of our day was when Dan, in his infinite curiosity, scrambled down a cliff face toward a fairy chimney perched at the edge and noticed a painting through a small opening. I was only too thrilled to be bouldering outdoors (though it would have been easier with my climbing shoes) so we climbed up the side and discovered that it had once been a church and it was covered in brightly-coloured frescoes! We found a few more rock-hewn churches and cave dwellings - and we could barely contain our excitement. These churches date back to the 9th & 10th centuries (A.D.) before the Iconoclastic Period. We stumbled upon two of them by chance as we wandered the great outdoors together.

On the way back to our campsite, we took a small detour to "Love Valley" (a small, well-marked trail that weaves along tall, slender fairy chimneys shaped like oversized mushrooms).

Afterward we braved icy-cold camp showers before trying Cappadocia's culinary special - pottery kebabs. Meat is cooked with vegetables in a clay pot and, once cooked, the pot is broken in half and the dish is served. It was a delicious, savoury end to a wonderful day.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Turkey - now with 100% more Dan!

Friday was a happy day for me. Sure, I saw Istanbul's most famous site - the Aya Sofya (or Haghia Sophia) but after a long month apart I finally met up with Dan (it was a joyful airport reunion straight out of a movie :P).

The Aya Sofya was a church built by the Emperor Justinian during the Roman rule until Mehmet the Conqueror came along and converted it into a mosque.

Today it is a museum (as declared by Ataturk in the 30s?) bearing the gorgeous Christian-themed mosaics of a church and the dome and minarets of a mosque. The best views of this impressive structures are from the upper galleries from where we could better appreciate the beautiful works of art and remarkable detail (every single column and pillar is carved with Justinian's own emblem.

Afterward we headed across the street to admire the Blue Mosque - Sultan Ahmet's answer to the Aya Sofya. It is quite splendid in its own right: not as large but impressively designed with a large marble courtyard and a beautiful garden.

At around 12:30, I hopped on the tram and the metro to pick up Dan at the airport and successfully stuffed him onto the tram without knocking over too many old ladies for the trip back to Sultanahmet.

The Turks are just as amused by our comical size diference as anyone back home. Mainly they'll smirk as they pass by but a bolder gentleman asked if he was my bodyguard. Children seem particularly mesmerized by the size of him - he towers over most people here like a mythical beast.

We explored the city for the rest of the evening (I took Dan to the Grand Bazaar and all around Sultanahmet) until rush hour descended upon us and the city became a mess of congestion and cigarette smoke. We left the neighbourhood and found an elusive market where we stocked up on fruit, bread, and water for a mere 7 lira. To avoid the craziness I steered us toward the Sea of Marmara and we headed back to Sultanahmet by walking along the coast.

Today we visited Topkapı Palace to marvel at the Sultan's treasures and decadent lifestyle before the fall of the empire. Tonight we are taking the overnight bus to Göreme and hope to find an open campsite to serve as our base while we explore the area and do some hiking. I am especially psyched to see the fairy chimneys and maybe take a hot air balloon ride over the lunar landscapes of Cappadocia. The tourist season outside of the big cities is over but I am hopeful that some places in Central Anatolia are still in the process of winding down.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Istanbul = Not just a Turkish Delight

Istanbul is such a neat city. It's a fantastic combination of old and new. The city itself spans two continents across the Bosphorus Strait. It is a European city but with just the right amount of exotic flavour and beautiful Ottoman architecture - it deserves to be raved about, as it has been by everyone who has been here before me.

Today Mike and I left Sultanahmet to explore the Golden Horn and cross the bridge into Taksim. Having already watched the sun set over the Sea of Marmara last night, we opted to walk along the Bosphorus Strait today on the European side and walked along the famous pedestrian avenue (Istikklal Caddesi) to Taksim Square, then followed the sidewalk beside the many waterfront palaces to the fourth-longest suspension bridge in the world - the Bosphorous Bridge.

The weather has been comfortable - warm low 20s and sunny during the day and cooler at night. It's a nice change from the scorching heat of the last few countries. I particularly enjoy sitting by the water and watching all the ships sail by while soaking up the sun.

So far I have been having a ball sampling all the street food - kebaps, corn on the cob, roasted chestnuts, and Turkish Delight (the cocoa squares are the best!).

Tomorrow we will try to visit the Aya Sofya before I head to the airport to meet Dan (we will wait to see Topkapi Palace until after he arrives). I am starting to think about the places Dan and I should visit (largely central Anatolia and the Mediterranean and Aegean cities) and debating heading off the beaten path to Eastern Turkey. The other backpackers here have been talking about how terrific it is and how hospitable the Kurds are, but time is limited... and I also want to make time for Gallipoli and Troy. We'll see...

Pictures from Caesarea (Israel)

Caesarea is a beautiful port city built by King Herod before it was conquered by the Crusaders and then the Arabs. There are ruins from both the Crusader city and the old Roman Amphitheatre and Hippodrome.

Port Inn Guesthouse (Haifa)

Here we are in the lovely dorms: Elisheva, David, Mike & Bram. David and I were sad to see each other go.

Pictures from Golan (Israel)

These pictures are from our daytrip to the Golan region in Northern Israel. We hiked in Banias National Park.
Clockwise from the top left: Banias Waterfalls, Crusader ruins, views of the mountains (yes I am wearing an awesome collapsible straw hat), Pan's Temple (ruins), Banias Springs, me hiking the trail.

Pictures from Tel Aviv

Thought I'd post a picture of our least favourite hostel - the Old Jaffa Hostel from Tel Aviv (that top bunk was mine). I also included a picture of the delicious spicy hot dogs I ate in Tel Aviv. If I find them back home I am buying them in bulk!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Touch down!

This morning, Mike and I woke up bright and early to beat the Tel Aviv heat and get to Ben Gurion Airport by 6:45 am. We passed through security and passport control quickly and took a short Turkish airlines flight to Istanbul.

We were able to take the metro and the tram from Ataturk International Airport to the Sultanahmet area without any difficulties and checked into the tiny but comfortable Mavi Guest House on a quiet, tree-lined, cobblestone street.

We explored the area for the rest of the day - and we are in a fantastic area - the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya, Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar are within walking distance. There is also a laundromat nearby which is great. I packed very little clothing and it became a bio-hazard rather quickly in the Middle Eastern climate.

The evening has been fun: we have been watching a football game with some very passionate Turks! I am getting to be addicted to the sport, but it is hard not to be on this side of the world.

Istanbul is such a beautiful city. Stay tuned for photos!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Belated Birthdays!

I also want to send my belated birthday wishes to Mel and Eksaran who are both celebrating milestone years in October.
Happy Birthday ladies!!!

Last night in Israel...

I have arrived back in Tel Aviv and given that there isn't much going on here I've had a good evening of introspection and acquainting myself with my new roommates at the Old Jaffa Hostel, all of whom are going home soon and feeling a wee bit sad about it.

Our last day in Northern Israel was especially neat for me. Given that my Israeli passport stamp bars me from entering Syria (the new, happening spot on the backpacker circuit), I decided to go for the next best thing: formerly Syrian, but now Israeli-occupied Golan Heights (you may remember a skirmish happening over this region not long ago).

Mike, Bram and I piled into the car and drove 2 hours further North to Upper Galilee: to Kiryat Shmona, stopping to look around a Kibbutz (Kibbutz Dan... tempting for me to stay in Israel and try to get into the Kibbutzim, given how beautiful this area is), and heading East into the Golan.

We spent the day hiking Banias National Park from the springs to the waterfall. It was an easy, leisurely hike. We stopped frequently to admire the sweeping views, to eat wild grapes and blackberries along the trail, to explore the old flour mill and spy on a Druze who was making bread in a stone cabin, and to nudge an adorable turtle in the direction of the water (he kept getting stuck and confused!). The trail ended up at some old Roman ruins built by King Herod's son as well as some old structures built by the crusaders. It's no mystery to us why Israel won't give up the land. It's gorgeous!

Before heading back to Haifa, we got hungry and hoped to find some food in a Druze village. After winding along the mountain for some time we turned back since there seemed to be no restaurant in sight and the sun was starting to set. Bram has keen eye and he found some apple trees and wild cucumbers growing beside the road so we ate them until we found the best shwarma place ever in Kiryat Shmona!!! It was SO cheap and delicious, hidden away behind the main road. I believe it was called Zion Shwarma but sadly I have no pictures.

We spent the rest of our evening with our roommates at the Port Inn Guest House - Elisheva, an American woman living in Israel and her adorable, energetic son David.

Leaving this morning was especially tough, especially since David had gotten to be so attached to us. We exchanged emails and invitations to come visit us in our respective countries. David promised to come visit us when he's famous, predicting he'd land his private plane in style on Elgin Street while wearing a James Bond suit. He kept us quite entertained during our stay.

On the way back to Tel Aviv, we stopped in the beautiful coastal town of Caesarea, built during the Roman rule by King Herod in honour of his patron Augustus Caesar. Much of the old city is submerged in the Med after invasions by the Crusaders and Arabs but the old Hippodrome and Amphitheatre were still there. The ruins were fascinating to see!

Now back in Tel Aviv, we sat on the beach until sunset then came back to the Old Jaffa Hostel. Tomorrow we leave early in the morning for Istanbul so I am hoping for a decent night's sleep. I hope to post some more pictures when I land :)

Monday, October 19, 2009


Haifa - Exploring the famous Bahai Gardens with our Port Inn roommates

Port Town of Ashdod - the Israeli Riviera

Tel Aviv - Simon and I overlooking the Med from Old Jaffa

Saturday, October 17, 2009

City by the Bay

"While Jerusalem prays, Tel Aviv plays... and Haifa works!"

It must be true. Upon approaching the port city of Haifa in Northern Israel, we immediately noticed the "high-tech park": we saw IBM, Microsoft, Intel, Google. Haifa was bustling with activity while Tel Aviv had shut down for the Jewish Sabbath.

Rewind to Saturday. We spent our last morning in Tel Aviv up on the rooftop of the Old Jaffa Hostel, trying to stay cool and digging into a new jar of nutella (we seem to go through them quickly). Mike's cousin picked us up mid-morning by the Old Clocktower, took us to see the beautiful coastal "Israeli Riviera" - a town called Ashdod with gorgeous beaches, and then we had a delicious homecooked meal with his family complete with glasses of port, a spicy Czech liqueur and plenty of good conversation to go along with our gourmet spread.

Following this fantastic meal, we said goodbye to Simon who flew back to Canada Sunday morning. In the evening Mike and I caught a sherut (shared taxi) to Haifa. As we were bearing North we noticed how lush Israel was becoming and we were excited to reach the city which reminds us both so much of San Francisco.

In Haifa there are only 2 directions: up and down, as the city is built into the slopes of Mount Carmel. With the help of the locals we made our way to Jaffa Street and checked into the Port Inn Guesthouse. We were not expecting too much but we were thrilled when we settled into the dorms. The place is very nice, well maintained and super clean! Expensive (75 shekels a night, about $25) but it is the most comfortable dorm I have stayed in so far.

Mike and I fell in love with the city immediately. After dropping off our packs we set out and climbed up to the top of Mount Carmel to look down at the glittering city by the bay. It only took an hour or so (ack - so many stairs!) and we were comfortable in the cool night breezes. We treated ourselves to McDonalds once we reached the top and at around 10 PM we got back to the Port Inn.

I slept very well last night after a hot shower and was ready to go this morning to see Haifa's famous site: the beautiful Bahai Gardens - the faith's second holiest site containing the Shrine of the Bab. Getting there required another hike up Mount Carmel which was significantly less comfortable than the previous night - considering we were now climbing in the heat.

We explored the beautiful gardens and learned about the Bahai faith with 2 of our friendly roommates from the Port Inn - Bram from Belgium and Evzen from the Czech Republic. Afterward Mike, Evzen and I picked up a rental car from Avis and stopped at a local sandwhich shop in the German Colony neighbourhood to eat dinner. If you are ever here, stop by the Big Bite on David Ben Gurion Avenue to try one of Shafez's delicious (and inexpensive) creations! I had the salami while the other two had duck.

Following our dinner, we hopped in the car and drove about 45 km East to Nazareth, where Jesus lived. We dropped Evzen here and explored a bit, but aside from the shops, bakeries and churches we didn't find much here and eventually came back to Haifa.

At the Port Inn, we met up with a small group of people (a Canadian, an Australian, a Kiwi and an American) who are completing a 7-week hike through Israel. They are literally strapping on their packs and walking from the North of the country all the way South to Eilat. At first I thought it was the craziest thing I'd ever heard but sure enough I remember Mike's cousin telling us about the famed Israel Trail hike starting North, passing through the Golan Heights, and continuing down through the Negev (presumably around Gaza and the West Bank) spanning almost 1000 km due to the winding nature of the trail. Once I got over my initial shock I was actually quite inspired though I'm not sure I could really tough it out as well. Maybe something to consider in the future in New Zealand, Portugal or even Bulgaria/Romania? There is a 46-month trail down the East Coast of the USA but I am pretty sure I wouldn't get the time off work :P

I am not sure what our plans will be for tomorrow, but hopefully I can get some pictures up soon!

Friday, October 16, 2009

New city, new scene

Hello from Tel Aviv! It was difficult but on Thursday we said goodbye to our excellent hostel (the Kaplan Hotel) in the beautiful city of Jerusalem to catch a bus to Israel's bustling "big city" of Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv isn't exactly what I expected... it's a big of a crumbling, uninspiring city. It isn't exactly a gleaming, modern new city nor does it have the charm and character of Jerusalem. It has the dated look of a place like Myrtle Beach (though when our parents took us there as kids, Nat and I did have a fantastic time by the ocean).

Once we arrived, we settled into our expensive yet very average hostel (the Old Jaffa Hostel). It isn't too bad - the showers have hot water, the dorms have a ceiling fan, and the rooftop terrace is quite nice. I wasn't especially thrilled about being separated from Mike and Simon (since I was put in the women's dorm) but I had fun getting to know my roommates who hail from all corners of the map.

The city is hot and humid... we made the fantastic discovery that Tel Aviv's outstanding beaches are just a stone's throw from the hostel. From the rooftop we have a great view of the Mediterranean.

Last night, we walked along the beach and watched the sun set, had dinner at a pub by the beach and chilled on the rooftop. Today we spent a few hours on the beach, swimming and playing frisbee. I have now dipped my toes in all of Israel's three Seas (the Med, the Dead and the Red... and yes I know I left out the sea of Galilee, but it doesn't rhyme!).

After that we explored old Jaffa and wandered downtown for a delicious meal at the only Thai restaurant we could find. I appreciate the city for its great weather and beautiful beaches and the fact that everyone here is so fit and active... but I guess it's hard not to be when you have such a great seawall for running and biking.

Tomorrow, we are leaving for Haifa.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Dead Sea

Today, we had a nice relaxing day at the Dead Sea. We took the bus from Jerusalem to Qumran (where the Scrolls were discovered), about 40 minutes southeast of the city. Deciding to forgo the busy touristy beaches of Ein Gedi further south, we ended up being dropped off at the side of the highway so that we could make our way to Kalia Beach.

We spent our time sunbathing at the Biankini public beach, floated in the Sea (it is nine times saltier than any other body of water on Earth) and covered ourselves in mineral-rich mud (this was my favourite part!). We floated out pretty far into the Sea, but try as we might we were incapable of sinking or even remaining upright - we were so buoyant our legs kept floating back to the surface!

After a while, the salt started to sting so we left to catch a bus - but no bus would stop at the side of the highway for us. Finally we found a nice cabbie to take us up to Jericho where we caught a bus back in time for a shwarma dinner.

As Jericho is now a Palestinian city, we could not visit it this time - it is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Next time for sure.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A little bit about Jerusalem...

I've been procrastinating in blogging about Jerusalem because, well, it's Jerusalem! There's so much to say and I haven't a sufficient vocabulary to describe it in a way that isn't cheesy.

I love Jerusalem! There's something magical about being in the holiest city in the world (if you subscribe to the prophetic religions). The new city is a beautiful modern metropolis; the old city feels like you've stepped back a few centuries. The streets are full of bubbly teens, Orthodox Jews, and young, gun-toting Israelis completing their compulsory military service. They speak English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Arabic and come from all over the world.

The first day we spent exploring the new city. This included walking through the Independence Park, the affluent, tree-lined Rehavia neighbourhood, "The Valley of the Cross" (a gorgeous park surrounding a Greek-Orthodox monastery), visiting the Israel Museum, the tastefully-exhibited Holocaust memorial and sampling kosher shwarmas (YUM!).

The Israel Museum was especially neat because it contained a huge model of the ancient city of Jerusalem as it stood in the Second Temple period about 2000 years ago, when it was roughly twice the size it is now. We also had informative audio guides explaining each notable feature of the old city from the Walls, to the City of David, the Temple Mount and the citadel.

We also made time to visit the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit exposing the lives and traditions of the Ashkenazi Jews who left Jerusalem to start their own community in Qumran by the Dead Sea. It was exciting because there was a section about the Aleppo Codex which had been found in Syria and smuggled into Israel - it's scripture I had never even heard of.

Our second day in Jerusalem was especially exciting as this was the day we visited the Old City and its holy sites. It was a short walk from our hostel to the old city wall and we followed it until we reached the magnificent Damascus Gate and started our exploration. The old city is divided into four quarters: Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish and we saw all in this order.

Our first group of sites were along Via Dolorosa in the Muslim and Christian quarters.
This involved a visit to St Anne's Church and the Bethesda Pools where Jesus cured a paralytic, and we followed Christ's last steps from the spot he was condemned to death, where he was scourged, given the cross, all the way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where was crucified, where he died and was laid to rest.
The Holy Sepulcher is a massive complex of chapels and rooms divided along the 6 oldest Christian sects.

Afterward we saw the Citadel, the Tower of David, the Armenian quarter and finally our highlight: the Western Wall, the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock. The sites were full of visitors, pilgrims, worshippers and curious tourists, but we were especially taken with the Dome of the Rock which we were fortunate to see (we only had about 20 minutes before it was shut down for Muslim prayer).

In the excitement of seeing the Old City, I must give special praise to Israel's kosher shwarmas which are as spectacular as Lebanon's and worth every shekel you spend on them! We discovered a hangout called Moshekos which is a shwarma stand-meets-Subway where you get a huge selection of toppings for your sandwhich. Instead of garlic sauce they have hummus and you can stuff them with french fries, pickles, eggplant, corn nibblets, pepperoncinis, and spicy sauces. It surprises us that after all we've seen on this trip, we wrap up our evenings waxing poetically about our delicious sandwiches.

Also, we found a laundromat. Yay for clean clothes! I had been previously washing everything in the sink so the break was nice :)