All our bags are packed, we’re ready to go

Three hours until we get on the plane home (via a 1 hour stop in Baku and a 1 night stop in Doha). Couldn’t be more excited. We’ve been counting the days, which seem to go by extra slow now.

Tbilisi’s pretty cool, though we didn’t do much, just lazed around the comfortable verandah of the Skadaveli Guest House, chatting with the owner and other guests and making pot after pot of deliciously creamy Turkish coffee (for some reason, it’s much easier to find Turkish coffee in Georgia than in Turkey; people in Turkey seem to only drink tea). Hung out with a couple from Belarus for a bit last night. They were surprised that we knew the name of the capital of Belarus. We were even more surprised that they could describe the Malaysian flag in detail.

The Skadaveli guest house verandah on the top left, in a typical Georgian courtyard. The building was built by a Jewish family in 1860, converted to apartments during the Soviet rule, then later bought over by the current owners who used it as an office before the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict.

Quite a few traditional Georgian buildings, with their typical wooden verandahs still survive. Huge restoration works are ongoing in various parts of the old town

Modernisation has come to town too. Like this new pedestrian bridge and the gigantic Holy Trinity Cathedral (in the background on the left)

Top three observations on Tbilisi:

1. There are a lot of cheap delicious fruits (tiny pears, peaches, cherries, etc.)

2. It’s so difficult to find a Coke here (it’s Pepsi country)

3. There are a many of cool statues (photos of some of them below)

Ever seen a statue of a guy with his hand in his pocket?

Ever seen a statue of two guys holding hands?

Our favourite, the statue of Kartlis Deda (Mother Georgia) who towers over the city

She seems to be everywhere

One huge aluminium mama. With a sword in one hand and a cup of wine in the other. Drunken master, anyone?

It’s easy to tell that we’re ready to go home. Yesterday, we took the cable car up to the hill where the huge Narikala fortress stands. We walked around a bit, and then took the cable car back down. Only on the way down did we realise that we had forgotten to go into the fortress. We were probably thinking of what to eat back home.

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One last climb up a slippery slope

With five days left till the end of our trip, we weren’t planning on doing any more strenuous activities. Definitely not hiking anywhere in the Caucasus mountains near the Russian border. Not even though the leading robber baron of Svaneti (and his son), had been arrested and put behind bars in 2004. We were set on lazing about in Tblisi, maybe do our laundry, some souvenir shopping, or get a scrub in a hammam.

But when the outgoing guests at Leo’s Homestay went on and on about how great the Caucasus mountains near the Russian border were, we thought, what the heck, one more for the road.

So we hopped on a mashrutka (mini-bus) to the Tblisi bus station and then looked for another mashrutka headed to Kazbegi. The second mashrutka was full, but we found a taxi driver who offered to take us for 40 GEL (20 Euro), which was less than half the standard fare. We soon discovered that he was crazy. Apart from driving on the wrong side of the road and overtaking at blind corners, the guy made it a point to swear and menacingly point at every single cow (there were many) and dog on the road. All the way to Kazbegi.

Kazbegi is three hours from Tbilisi on the Georgian Military Highway, which is known for its potholes. By the way, these photos were taken from the mashrutka on the way back. We didn’t take any photos on the taxi ride there as we were busy being scared shitless

The Georgian Military Highway is an ancient passage from Tbilisi over the Caucasus to Vladikavkaz in Russia. The landscape, as you can see here, is amazing

There are a couple tunnels along the Georgian Military Highway. This is the only one that is still in use

We arrived in Kazbegi (1,750m asl) a good three hours later, a little peeved but at least still in one piece, and checked in to Emma’s Guest House  run by Leo’s friend, Piqria Burduli. It was a bargain too: comfortable rooms, great views, and good food (dinner and breakfast) for just GEL35 (17 Euro) per person.

In Kazbegi, which is the last town before the (now closed) Russian border. Google has set up a mini market here

Another photo of Kazbegi

There are apparently many wonderful walks to be had in the mountains surrounding Kazbegi. We tried to do the most basic one: a two hour walk up to the 14th-century Tsminda Sameba Church situated on a hill at 2,200m asl. Here’s the rest of story in pictures:

View from Emma’s Guest House. We tried to climb up to that church (the little dot on the hill in the middle)

Passing the small village of Gergeti to get to the foot of the hil

We got a bit lost in Gergeti. A girl and her dog then showed us a short cut

We then met some ladies who showed us another short cut

We overtook the ladies at some point

One set of legs gave up a short distance from the top. Luckily, there was space for us in a passing Lada Niva!

The view that made Kazbegi famous among backpackers. On a good day you can see mountains towering up around it, including Mt. Kazbek at 5,047m asl. Another 900m ascent from here will take you to the Gergeti glacier

The Tsminda Sameba church, which has become something of a symbol of Georgia. Beware of the dress code though: to enter, men need to be wearing long pants and women need to wear long skirts

View of Gergeti and Kazbegi from the top of the hill

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The Big Breakfast

Desperate to escape the heat and tedium of Batumi, we headed to the hills of Borjomi one day earlier than planned via the night train to Kashuri. After a sweaty start (the air-conditioning wasn’t switched on until much later), it turned out to be a pretty comfortable journey. We shared a cabin with a friendly Iranian who had gone to Batumi for some sea and sun. It turned out that he owned a jewellery shop in Tabriz and was also studying English (he had brought along his homework to do on the train). Visibly thrilled to find out that we were from Malaysia, he invited us to visit him in Iran.

The train was scheduled to arrive in Kashuri at 4.49am. We were up much earlier to keep an eye out for our stop. Just how we would recognise our stop, we weren’t actually sure, as the station signs were all in Georgian. But it turned out that there was no need to worry after all, as the train attendant was kind enough to wake up from his sleep to alert us as the train pulled into the station.

The marshutkas (mini buses) were not running yet, so we took a taxi to Borjomi. The taxi driver was chirpy and chatty throughout the 40 minute journey, even though it was five in the morning and we couldn’t understand a word he was saying.

We reached Leo’s Homestay at 5.45am and waited a good 15 minutes before giving Leo a wake-up call. We felt a little bit guilty when Leo and his mother, Marina emerged bleary eyed. While Marina began preparing breakfast, we followed Leo on his morning walk at the Mineral Water Park.

The Mineral Water Park was established in the 1850s, and had been a popular destination for Russian tourists, including the Tsars, during the Soviet era. The water here is said to have curative properties, namely for diabetes and various stomach related illnesses. The park also has a very nice amusement park as well as free wifi!

There are two types to choose from: cold river water (above photo), which is strangely carbonated and tastes just a little bit salty, or hot spring water, which is nice if you like sulphur. Here, Leo is showing us the gas bubbling up from the cold river water

This is Leo’s neighbour, who works at the Mineral Water Park. In the morning he cuts the grass with a long sickle, and in the afternoon he mans the trampolines. He’s 70 years old and still has a physique “like Stallone”. He took off his shirt to show us

We went back later that day to check out the hot swimming pool, which is a pleasant 2.5km walk through the woods behind the park. It seems that the thing to do here is to jump into the pool. Dylan tried it and soon discovered he’s not twenty-something anymore

Genius seems to run in Leo’s family. Leo himself is a champion pianist and chess player. He would delight his guests by performing one or two pieces on the piano each day, making the apartment seem like a concert hall (check out a live recording here). He also invited us to a game chess but we politely declined, not wanting to embarrass Malaysia. Marina taught herself to speak English, and is now one of the few people in town who can speak it. In her younger days, she also taught herself to read and write Russian, and spent her time translating a few Russian books to Georgian, just for fun.

While poverty was an obvious feature of Batumi, people here seemed to be better off (our indicator was that there was no one begging on the streets). Still, Leo says, jobs are hard to come by, and many are unemployed. No doubt due to their resourcefulness, Leo’s family seems to get by particularly well. A few years ago they turned their first floor, one-bedroom apartment into a guesthouse, and constructed a small wooden extension on the side, where Leo and his parents now sleep. The guesthouse can fit seven quite comfortably, with three beds in the original bedroom and four in the living room.

As there were few guests, we had the original bedroom to ourselves, for just 20 GEL (10 Euros) per person

Breakfast at Leo’s is a feast. Marina prepares up to five dishes single-handedly every morning (sometimes preparation even starts the night before). All this at only 5 GEL (2.50 Euro) per person

Breakfast in the living room on the second day. The menu was totally different each day!

Leo recommended taking the old narrow gauge railway up to the Bakuriani resort. While the hill resort was rather dead since there was no snow, the two and a half hour train ride was quite pleasant and passed through some beautiful pine forests and meadows. The two-carriage train functioned as somewhat more of a mini-bus, stopping to pick up passengers (villagers, woodcutters, etc.) anywhere along the tracks.

One of many meadows along the way that looked like something out of Forks (Twilight fans would understand)

That night we walked down to the town square to watch the Euro 2012 semi-final game between Spain and Portugal. A projector had been set up, with the side of a building used as a giant screen. It was a BYOB (Bring-your-own-bench) event, and we only watched till half-time as our legs had gotten a bit tired from standing throughout.

We psyched ourselves up to do a walk in the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park the next day. After checking in at the park office (no entry fees, but donations are accepted), Leo gave us a lift to the start of the trail, which was 2km away.

In line with the Cabutlari policy on hiking, i.e. when given a choice, go around rather than up the mountain, we chose Trail 6 (Wildlife Traces Trail), which at 13km was one of the shortest trails on offer and from the topographic map, did not seem to lead up to any scary peaks.

As has become tradition for our hikes, the rain and howling wind joined us just one hour in. It was a pity, as the mountains looked as though they would have been stunning had they not been almost totally enveloped in clouds; and the meadows full of wild flowers looked like they would have been a nice place to sit or roll around, had the cold wind and rain not been piercing through our wet clothes and into our bones.  On the bright side, the trail did live up to its name. We did indeed come across many traces of wildlife – fresh scat (technical term for animal poo) of what could have been deer, bear, lynx and horse were spotted at many points on the trail. We also played hide and seek with a cheeky squirrel.

Looking for wildlife traces. The Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park was established in 1995 with assistance from WWF and the government of Germany. It’s the largest park in the Caucasus

The meadows on the ridges are filled with pretty wildflowers, many of which are supposed to be endemic (not that we know which ones)

The underside of one wildflower that we found quite interesting. Notice the beetles feeding on the nectar

Flowers on a different bract of the same plant, yet to bloom

On hindsight, it might have been a good idea to have either checked the weather forecast, or worn our waterproof pants

After crawling laboriously uphill, then slipping and sliding downhill for what seemed to be forever (but was actually just six hours), we made it back to flat land. It was still some 2km to the main road, so we were happy to pay 20 GEL for a taxi from the park back to Bojormi. And the rain continued incessantly till the next morning.

All in all, it was a great three days. And if all goes according to plan, we will be back in a few years to visit Leo and Marina, and purchase a second-, third- or fourth-hand Lada Niva to drive back to Malaysia with.

Leo’s trusty Lada Niva, a Russian-made car that’s ubiquitous in these parts. He had an LPG engine installed. We’re crazy about it

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Georgia, or Gurcistan

Georgia, yeaaa? It’s really, really, really, really nice, yeaaa.” So said Jonny Rainbow, legendary traveller and international man of mystery whom we met in Sarajevo. Thus we decided to visit Georgia, or the country sometimes also known as Gurcistan.

After an eventful border crossing – first the bus from Rize broke down, then the immigration officer on the Turkey side abruptly left his post to go to the loo or lunch, leaving a bunch of us waiting in the sweltering heat, and on finally the Georgian immigration officers took our passports to show their colleagues at the back just for fun – we were in Georgia.

The closest Georgian town to the Turkish border is Batumi, a seaside resort town in the Adjara autonomous region. The old town of Batumi, where most travelers congregate consists of perpendicular grids of old shop houses leading up to the town’s main attraction, the beach.

The beach, which has smooth river rocks all the way into the sea, instead of sand. Dylan attempted to swim, but chickened out when he saw chicken feathers floating about

The government has spent a lot of money beautifying the beachfront. This little girl was striking fierce poses for her mum’s camera

Batumi has crazy drivers who drive at breakneck speed and don’t stop for pedestrians. The girls in blue in the photo help pedestrians cross the road here. We suspect they’re from some sort of NGO trying to educate drivers

We spent two days in Batumi. The hostel won our Cabutlari award for Worst Hostel of the Trip hands down. The place was filthy, the toilet doors had partially see-through windows, one of the caretakers was preoccupied with surfing the internet and making out with her boyfriend, and we even had to make a special request for bed sheets (even though it’s included in the price).

Simulated dancing in the toilet

On the bright side, we met some of the most hardcore travellers ever here. Our roommates were riding from France to Mongolia on motorcycle. Three others were cycling from Germany to Mongolia. Two guys were walking from Paris to Kazakhstan.

Our room mate packing his bags on his Africa Twin. Check out their photos at Vamos Primo

One of the cyclists was using this lean-back bike. We wonder how it performs at traffic lights

The most awesome of all, the walkers with one of their wheelies for towing

One thing that we found particularly disturbing in Batumi was the number of children begging on the streets. There were beggars on almost every street corner, most of whom were young children or women carrying babies. A few kids who looked like they were no older than five were on wheelchairs or had bandages around their hands or feet. One was crying his eyes out to get attention from passerby’s. Many were very persistent and would cling on to us. We were even chased down a street by two ladies carrying babies, after Dylan had given some spare change to one but didn’t have any more to give to the other who suddenly appeared from nowhere.

Wondering if there was a syndicate at work here, we looked it up on the internet. From what we gathered, there is no official estimate of the number of street children in Georgia, though unofficial estimates put the number at around 2,000. A 2009 UNICEF report on a survey of 301 street children around Georgia concluded that there was no syndicate at work here, just economic hardship resulting from the recent turbulent history of the country. The majority of the kids surveyed were on the streets simply because their parents did not earn an sufficient income to feed (and often house) their families.

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Dancing in the mountains

Ayder, the gateway to the Kackar Mountains in northeastern Turkey, was one of our most researched places on this trip.  This was simply because there wasn’t much information about it  (in English) anywhere. The Lonely Planet whetted our interest with its account of the various alpine treks to forests, waterfalls and glacial lakes that could be accessed from here, but provided little by way of practicalities. We also found bits and pieces of information on a few good blogs, but just not enough.

So we took a chance and jumped on a bus for the 14-hour ride from Goreme to Rize, a town on the edge of the Black Sea coast about 50km from Ayder. Rize is known as the commercial centre for its surrounding tea and kiwi growing region, but to our surprise it’s is also a bustling town with good roads, a large hospital and many shops.

The main pedestrian boulevard in Rize

As we hadn’t managed to find any accommodation in Ayder or Rize on the internet that was within our budget, we decided to just walk around town in search of hotels. We found one about 500 metres away from the otogar (bus) station. Because it was relatively cheap, and we were too exhausted (as well as a bit disoriented – 14 hours on a bus does that to you) to walk further with our 16kg backpacks, we took it.

We may have well been the only foreign tourists in Rize at the time. There were curious stares wherever we went. Men and women would come up to us and ask where we were from. Some shook our hands. Kids yelled ‘welcome’, ‘hello’ or ‘merghaba‘ from afar. We felt like Brangelina.

Although it was great being the only foreign tourists in town, the only problem was that almost no one here speaks English. So we got by by playing charades.

For example, on the first evening we went in search of the specialty of this region, hamsili pilav (anchovy rice). For some reason, none of the restaurants seemed to have it, they all only served kebabs. We asked a guy sitting outside a grocery shop. After signing “fish” and “eat”, he signed back that that it was not in season, but perhaps one particular restaurant next to the main mosque and museum that might have it.

He then directed a young man (who may have been his assistant) to lead us there. The young man led us across town to a nice little restaurant, which did indeed have the dish on its menu. However, the waiter signed us that the restaurant could only prepare it if given a day’s notice. We signed to him, “Yes, we would like to order this and this, and will come here at 7pm tomorrow.”

We then spotted a tourist information office next to the museum and went in to ask for more information on Ayder. Surprise, surprise, they didn’t speak English either. But they did have a useful tourism booklet in English and called for reinforcements when we started asking questions – in the form of a tourist bus driver who was hanging around outside the office. Yay, we got the information we wanted – a direct dolmus (minibus) to Ayder leaves at 9.30am every day from Sehitler Cad. dolmus station near the coastal highway.

So the next morning we hopped on the dolmus to Ayder. We had originally planned to stay a few nights, but couldn’t find a cheap hotel online, so we left our backpacks in Rize. We had also originally wanted to do some treks in the Kackar Mountains but upon reaching Ayder (and seeing how steep the mountains were), we realised that we were actually drained from the heat and long bus rides in Turkey. So instead of walking up the mountain, we decided to walk 17km downhill to Camlihemsin, the nearest town to Ayder, and then catch a dolmus back to Rize. With that decision, we happily explored Ayder’s other attraction: pastries!

Ayder is a popular holiday destination for local tourists. Many holiday makers picnic on the grassy slopes here

Four young men take time out from grilling chicken to pose for the camera

Ayder is known for its tasty pastries with corn and honey filling

Camlihemsin is a little town between Rize and Ayder

A pretty wooden building that caught our attention in Ayder turned out to be a pension (hotel). Hasan Sori, owner of the pension and Robert DeNiro’s doppelganger, happened to be sitting outside as we were admiring the building. He was kind enough to show us around. For 20 TL (about 9 Euros) per person, we could have gotten a rustic (though basic) room with amazing views of the waterfall and forest! Hasan a.k.a Robert speaks very good English and also offered to arrange for guides to take us up to Kackar. We smacked our heads for having left our luggage in the lowlands, but made a mental note to give him some free advertising. So if any of you plan to go to Ayder, do check his place out.

Hasan Sori’s pension. For reservations, call 0506-951 5808 / 0507-704 6711

The room with the best view of the forest and waterfall. Hasan can also help arrange for trekking trips (both guided or unguided)

Many people have said that Robert DeNiro looks like Hasan Sori. Here he is showing us his DeNiro pose

Barely a kilometre into our walk downhill to Camlihemsin, we came upon a strange sight – a group of ladies dancing in a circle by the road. (Later we found out that they were doing a simplified version of horon, a traditional Turkish party dance). They tried to pull us in, so Sara and her clumsy feet tried to dance the horon, which supposed to look something like this. Our new found dancing friends then invited us to join them for snacks. With limited English and Turkish, they explained that they were there to harvest their honey, and then we somehow became Facebook friends.

Ladies dancing in circles

Gossiping over watermelon and pumpkin seed

A group photo to remember our new Facebook friends

We continued downhill after saying goodbye. About nine kilometres later, we noticed fresh trails of tar on both sides of the road. As the tar lines ran long and within inches of each other, we were worried that it might ruin our shoes. And just in time, a car stopped by the roadside and the young man who was driving offered us a ride. Yippie! The driver was a handsome young soldier from Kayseri who was honeymooning with his equally gorgeous new wife from Ankara. They offered to take us all the way to Rize (as it was on the way to Trabzon, where they were headed) but we decided to give the honeymooners their space and asked them to drop us at Camlihemsin.

At Camlihemsin, trying to figure out backgammon while waiting for the dolmus.

We made it back to Rize in time for dinner. So to end our fabulous Turkish day out, we feasted on anchovies.

Traditional northeastern Turkish dishes: Hamsili pilav (anchovy rice) and Hamsikoli (anchovies baked with maize). Washed down with refreshing cherry juice

The only place you can get these things in Rize (at this time of year?) is at Euuel Zaman, next to the museum

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Up, up and away!

For you, fourty percent discount” said the travel agent. “Pay 20 percent deposit now, and if you change your mind, we give you refund.”

Not one to turn down a bargain, and since we were in Cappadocia, which is supposed to be one of the best places in the world for hot air ballooning, we said “OK lah.”

So at 5.30am yesterday morning, we found ourselves in a rattan basket with 20 other people, floating above Cappadocia.

Warming up the balloon

After a scary lift-off, the balloon behaved. That’s our balloon’s shadow over there

Sunrise

We were the third balloon to take off that morning. Not that it’s a competition, but… yay!

About 80 balloons take flight every morning

Cappadocia’s strange landscape makes the balloon ride all the more interesting

The direction of the balloon depends on the wind. So all 80 something balloons fly in the same general direction

Andy, our British pilot who works here for 5 months each year

Photo from the panoramic App on Sara’s phone

Because hot air ballooning was invented by the French, the tradition is to pop a bottle of champagne after each flight. We opted for orange juice. If hot air ballooning was invented by Malaysians, the tradition would be to make teh tarik instead

Another balloon landing next to us

Two guys have the unenviable job of pulling down the top of the balloon

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Ruins, Ruins and the Cotton Castle

It’s hot. Very hot. 40 degrees Celsius hot. The kind of hot that can fry eggs on the sidewalk, and probably also burn some toast to go with it. So hot that one of us even had to use sun block.

After reminiscing football miracles and harems, we move south to Selcuk (11 hours by bus from Istanbul) and then east to the little town of Pamukkale (three hours by bus from Selcuk). We’re writing this as a 2 town-in-1 post combo because, well, we’re kind of lazy, it’s too hot to think, and both towns have something in common – ruins. We read somewhere that Turkey is so old and has so many ruins that if you dig a hole anywhere, you’ll probably hit some ruins. That’s obviously an exaggeration, but Turkey does have a lot of ruins.

Byzantine era aqueduct ruins in Selcuk.

Upon closer inspection, you’ll notice that storks have nested on top of these ruins

Ephesus, which is just outside of Selcuk town has the largest collection of Roman ruins in Eastern Mediterranean, even though it’s estimated that only 15 percent of the ancient city has been excavated. With a population of more than 250,000 in the 1st century BC, Ephesus was one of the largest and most happening cities in the Mediterranean world. It had a terraced housing estate, amenities like a library, theatre, brothel, public baths, hospital, as well as many temples, including the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Sara became our tour guide, with a little help from the Lonely Planet

Not sure what this is

Temple of Hadrian, which is known for its intricate carvings

Medusa sits on the second arch at the temple to ward off evil spirits

Library of Celsius. The library held 12,000 scrolls, making it the third largest library in the ancient world after Alexandria and Pergamum

Terraced houses. Each house had running water (hot and cold!) as well as beautiful frescoes and mosaics

Restoration of the houses is ongoing. Here they’re restoring a jigsaw puzzle

There was going to be a party for some VIPs that night

The theatre, which was used primarily for municipal meetings

Hierapolis, on the other hand was essentially a huge hill-top spa and leisure centre in Pamukkale founded by the King of Pergamum in 190 BC. The main attraction here was the natural thermal springs which was believed to have curative properties. There was a huge swimming pool, a gymnasium, a threatre as well as a huge latrine.

Ancient swimming pool, and modern bikinis

Ancient latrines (toilets). Apparently taking a dump with your friends used to be a popular past time

Columns. Was too hot to care about what ancient buildings they belonged to

Most of the hilltop looks like this

You’re probably really, really, really tired of looking at ruins by now. So are we. In all honesty, they’re just not our thing, ruins. But we found something that we like a lot more: travertine. One will never fully appreciate the wonders of calcium carbonate deposited by mineral springs until one dips in a pool of fresh travertine. And Pamukkale is one of a number of places in the world where one can do this. Indeed, many have been dipping in travertine here for thousands of years. Meaning “cotton castle” in Turkish, Pamukkale is both the name given to the bright-white hillside leading to Hierapolis (above), as well as the small town on the bottom of the hill whose main trades are carpets and tourism.

A white hill… can you imagine?

Although the springs and travertine deposits are a natural occurrence here, we suspect that the hill slope was modified (probably by the ancient fellows who used to run Hierapolis) to make it more amenable for recreation. There’s a man-made looking drain that keeps most of the water moving along the main path parallel to the ridge, and there are several man-made looking pools that are suitable for wading in.

Many types of people throng Pamukkale. Some wear shirts, some go shirtless, and some go half-shirtless

A continuous sheet of water cascades down the broad path. In order to limit the impacts on the travertine, no footwear is allowed

There are numerous pools on the hill slope. We’re still not sure if travertine is good for the skin, but the thing to do is to lather yourself in it

It’s quite hard to wash off and leaves a pesky white residue

Some people prefer to keep dry and cool though (because we were due for a 12-hour bus ride on the same day)

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The Miracle of Istanbul

We’re back! Apologies for the long hiatus, but we’ve been having some much needed R&R in the UK (yes, we needed a break from travelling because it’s hard work, but someone’s gotta do it, right?). We had a really nice time too, catching up with family and friends. Will post about that if we have the time.

Now on the final leg of our travels, we find ourselves in sunny Istanbul, which as many of you know, has a rich and glorious history. Sitting on the crossroads between Europe and Asia, Istanbul, Byzantium or Constantinople or whatever you call it has seen the ebb and flow of many great civilisations and empires as well as had its fair share of glorious battles.

A recent battle that many of you may remember was the so-called “Miracle of Istanbul’. It was right here in the Attaturk Stadium, on the 25th day of the fifth month of the the year 2005, that a rag tag team of warriors representing the Liverpool FC performed stupendous feats of courage to achieve what is widely agreed to be the most astonishing comeback in the history of European Cup finals. Up against the might of an AC Milan side that boasted the likes of Shevchenko, Kaka and Maldini, no one gave them a chance in hell when they fell 3-0 down at half time. Then a six minute spell of utter magic in the second half orchestrated by captain Steven Gerard the Magnificent, plus a couple of miraculous saves by keeper of the goal Jerzy “Spaghetti legs” Dudek saw the Reds claw back from the brink of defeat to emerge as champions of Europe for the fifth time in the club’s glorious history. That night under the Istanbul sky, this group of young warriors ceased to be mere mortals and arose to become legends in their own right. Check out this video if you want to relieve that awesome night.

The victorious Red warriors lift the Champions League trophy (Source here)

Other than that, Istanbul is a pretty nice place. In two days we visited some of the main tourist sites, including the Hagia Sofia, Blue mosque, Topkapi palace, and Basilica Cistern. We also went pants shopping along Taskim Road. To tell you the truth, this was quite a pathetic attempt at sightseeing actually. There’s a whole lot more in and around Istanbul that we didn’t see, but the weather was just too hot, there wasn’t enough time and we had to get back to our hostel to catch the Euro 2012 matches each evening.

Hagia Sofia – a church turned mosque turned museum

We’re not sure, but the Hagia Sofia may have been the only mosque in the world where Christian art sits besides Islamic art. In this photo, a mosaic of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus is juxtaposed by medallions inscribed with the names of Allah and Muhammad

A beautiful ceraph (winged biblical angel)

A mosaic on the upper floor depicting the Last Judgement

Vikings worked as security guards at Hagia Sofia at some point. They left their graffiti marks on the marble bannister of the upper floor.

Basilica cistern built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 532. Not your usual cistern, this one is a sprawling underground cavern filled with water that is full of scary carp.

Two columns in the cistern are supported by medusa heads – one upside down, one sideways. No one knows why.

Taksim square, which leads to Taksim road, which as a very nice place to shop for things like pants

In many cities, stray cats come over to you looking for food. The cats here have taken this to the next level – they have their own begging bowls!

Guarding the entrance to Topkapi palace. The Blue Mosque is in the background

The Imperial Harem at Topkapi palace piqued our interest in particular, because, you know, it’s a harem. So we forked out the extra charge to get into the harem, and spent some time browsing through the ongoing harem exhibition at the palace stables. We were amazed to find that rather than being the kinky stereotype we had in our minds (you know, of the Sultan lying in the garden being fed grapes by a bevvy of skimpily clad dancing girls), the Imperial Harem was actually a complex social system that was one of the most important elements of the Ottoman Court. It was also not altogether a bad thing for the young girls that entered it. In a nutshell:

  1. Young girls from around the empire are brought into the harem, either sold by their parents, or captured in war, or through the slave trade.
  2. In the harem, the girls were educated in subjects such as world studies, language and Islam, as well as taught various skills such as sewing, cooking and singing. They were eventually assigned specific roles around the palace, depending on what they were good at. These roles could be as important as keeper of the treasury.
  3. Around 600 people lived in the harem at any one time. The harem held an air of mystique to the folks outside, as no one, except for the Sultan, the Sultan’s mother, Black eunuchs and the occasional traders, were allowed inside. Nor were the girls allowed out of the Harem except for the purpose of carrying out their duties.
  4. The girls were freed after nine years of service, usually married off to noblemen who would appreciate their refinement and education as well as benefit from their connections to the Sultan.
  5. All of the Sultan’s offspring borne from the ladies of the harem (children of his official wives as well as concubines) had equal chance of being chosen as the next Sultan. The mother of the new Sultan would then rise to become the Valide Sultan, the second most powerful person in the kingdom after the Sultan.

The harem

The harem apartments

Pretty interesting stuff, eh?

We know that the Malay Sultans of yore had their own harems too. And there are some written accounts of these. For instance, a late 19th century annual report for a certain Federated Malay State on the east coast written by the British noted that all girls residing in the royal town who reached a certain age would have to enter the Sultan’s harem for a few years. An even more bizarre article in an 1892 edition of the Milwaukee Journal alluded to the fact a certain Sultan of a certain Federated Malay State was arm-twisted by the British to accept a Resident after he ran into some trouble involving a Chinese girl whom he wanted to bring into his harem… Wouldn’t it be just wonderful if Muzium Negara held an exhibition on our Sultans’ harems too?

Note: This post is dedicated to our friends Alex, builder of railways and Ee Lynn, friend of animals, both loyal Koppites.

Disclaimer: Sara wishes to convey that she had no part whatsoever in writing the first part of this entry.

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Miss Sarajevo

We woke up early to catch the 8am train from Mostar to Sarajevo. When our taxi didn’t show up by 7.30am, we decided to walk to the station. It was a good half hour of brisk walking with our heavy backpacks, but we made it just in time, and the train journey was well worth the exertion. The train passed through some beautiful countryside, mostly between and under mountains (apparently the tracks run through some 68 tunnels).

View from the train. Literally heaven-on-earth

In Sarajevo we stayed just down the street from where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie were assassinated in 1914. The museum that now stands on that street corner has some interesting displays related to the assassination, including the pants that the assasin, Gavrilo Princip was wearing when he shot them. Revisiting the events of almost 100 years ago, we can’t help but wonder, was the assassination merely a plot by Serbian military-backed plot to gain independence from the Austrian-Hungary monarchy, or was it part of a larger, more sinister conspiracy to start World War I and thereby set the stage for the establishment of a New World Order?

The famous intersection. Gavrilio Princip was standing where the car is parked when he shot Franz Ferdinand and Sophie

Franz  and Sophie in their open-top sports car just minutes before they were gunned down. The museum has a video re-enactment of the events of that fateful day, which demonstrates the Archduke’s enviable catching arm. Before Gavrilo did him in, five other assassins failed. While four just didn’t react fast enough, one fellow did manage to lob a grenade towards the Archduke’s car. Not only was the Archduke alert enough to see the grenade, but he even caught it in mid-air and tossed it onto the road behind him (there are various other versions of this on the web). Although the members of his entourage seated in the car behind were badly wounded from the blast, the Archduke still had the state of mind to give his scheduled speech at the town hall a few minutes later. (Photo from the Museum Sarajevo 1878-1918 collection)

But we digress. We loved Sarajevo. For one, the hostel we were at, Travellers Home hostel has cable TV in the dining area, a well equipped kitchen stocked with an interesting selection of free food including microwave popcorn and packet soup, and our room even had a remote control sun roof! Sarajevo itself is lovely. It’s situated in a valley surrounded by mountains on both sides. The food is good and value for money, and the people are genuinely friendly. And the best thing is, there aren’t too many tourists around.

Panoramic view of Sarajevo

Baščaršija, the heart of Ottoman Sarajevo, which dates back to 1462. Baščaršija was the meeting place for traders from Europe and Asia. Its streets are still named after the over 80 trades that operated here at its height.

Our staple diet, the mouth watering Cevapi – grilled minced veal, bread, fresh onions and pickled chilies (most cevapi places have butter curd instead of chilies)

Bosnian version of nasi campur – rice with a selection of dishes, including stuffed peppers, beef and beans

Of course, being in Sarajevo you can’t help but imagine what life must have been like during the 44 month long siege just 20 years ago. While all we could remember from back then was the news footage of rockets setting the Sarajevo sky aglow, we were now hearing (and reading) story after story of how ordinary citizens survived for almost four years in a city under siege, in a war where you could rarely see the enemy, but had to be extra careful that your enemy could not see you.

We took the famous “tunnel tour” to the key sights of the siege. This included the Sarajevo Tunnel that was such a vital lifeline for city’s inhabitants, as well as the hills from where the Serb forces laid siege on the city. *Notice that we say “Serb forces”, not “Serbs”. Many Serbs were in fact opposed to the Serb forces and their objectives, and many stayed behind to defend Sarajevo.

The infamous sniper alley, where anyone walking on the street would almost surely attract the attention of snipers. The yellow building in the background is the Holiday Inn, where foreign press correspondents were based. The twin towers, which were almost badly damaged during the war are now gleaming again. A spanking new mall now sits in front of them

Our guide, who also owns Residents Rooms Hostel. He was serving as a government officer when the war started. One of the things he had to do during the war was negotiate with Serb forces the safe passage of two bus loads carrying women and children out of Sarajevo. The Serb forces allowed this on one condition – that he follows them on the bus across the border of the Serb forces territory and then returns to the city.

View from a section of the Serb forces line, from where they fired mortars onto the city. Snipers were also positioned along this line

The 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics marked a proud moment in Bosnia’s history because it was the first time the games were held in the then Yugoslavia. The bobsled track  that was constructed for the games was destroyed during the war as it was in the Serb forces territory.

This tunnel provided the only link between the city and the outside world. Tonnes of humanitarian aid and weapons as well as an estimated 1 million people passed through the 800m long tunnel that connected Bosnian held territory and the airport (which was a neutral zone controlled by the UN). The tunnel was 5 ft tall and 1 ft wide.

The entrance to the tunnel lies under this house, which has since been converted into a museum. As this was a top secret location during the war, the sign that says “tunnel” on the front of the house probably didn’t exist back then

As the international community dragged its feet, an estimated 12,000 people, including over 1,500 children died in the siege of Sarajevo (and many more in other parts of the country). The most shocking failure of the international community was perhaps the implementation of the arms embargo. While the citizens of Sarajevo became sitting ducks as they lost access to weapons to defend themselves (and they even had to surrender what weapons they already possessed), the Serb forces continued to receive a constant supply of weapons and oil from Serbia.

We understand there are many different opinions of why what happened, happened. But after what we’ve seen and heard, one particular version that we personally would like to believe is that it had more to do with politicians seeking to consolidate power (following the dissolution of Yugoslavia) rather than straightforward ethnic or religious feuds.

Having been for centuries a meeting place for traders from the east and west, Sarajevo has always been a melting pot for people of different ethnicity and religion. Until today, the city’s multicultural heritage lives on especially in the old part of town. At various times of day, call to prayers ring out from the beautiful old mosques, churches and synagogues scattered among the narrow streets here.

Gazi Husrev Bey’s Mosque, one of the first mosques in Sarajevo, built in 1531. According to legend, instead of immediately building the mosque with the budget he was given by the patron Gazi Husrev, the mosque’s architect first gave out small loans to the people living in the area to start various businesses. Once their businesses were established after a few years, they in turn contributed back to the construction of the mosque. The architect also hid gold coins in one of the walls of the mosques, so that if the mosque was ever destroyed, the gold coins would be found and could be used for its restoration. The mosque was badly damaged in the 1992-1995 war, but not damaged enough to reveal the location of the gold coins.

The ancient Serbian Orthodox church of St. Michael the Archangel, which dates from medieval times and was reconstructed in the late 1800s

Evidence that this spirit of peace and tolerance has been alive in Sarajevo for centuries is found in the Ahdname that was issued by the Ottoman Sultan Fateh Mehmed II when he conquered Bosnia in 1463.  It is one of the world’s oldest firman (edict) on religious freedom:

The Ahdame (Source here)

“I, the Sultan Khan the Conqueror, hereby declare the whole world that, The Bosnian Franciscans granted with this sultanate firman are under my protection. And I command that: No one shall disturb or give harm to these people and their churches! They shall live in peace in my state. These people who have become emigrants, shall have security and liberty. They may return to their monasteries which are located in the borders of my state. No one from my empire notable, viziers, clerks or my maids will break their honour or give any harm to them! No one shall insult, put in danger or attack these lives, properties, and churches of these people! Also, what and those these people have brought from their own countries have the same rights… By declaring this firman, I swear on my sword by the holy name of Allah who has created the ground and sky, Allah’s Prophet Mohammed, and 124,000 former prophets that; no one from my citizens will react or behave the opposite of this firman!” (May 28, 1463)

A page from the Sarajevo Haggadah

Another tale of inter-faith kinship involves the Sarajevo Haggadah, a 600 year old illustrated Jewish manuscript that is now worth over USD700 million. When the Nazis invaded Sarajevo, Hitler instructed his troops to seize the haggadah from the National Museum and burn it. The chief librarian of the National Museum at that time, a Muslim Bosniak by the name of Derviš Korkut, risked his own life in order to save it. When the Nazi officer came to demand for the haggadah, Derviš lied that another officer had already come to collect it (and had already burnt it), although it was still sitting on the bookshelf behind him. The Nazi officer searched the library, but couldn’t find it because it did not have a golden cover as he believed it would. The librarian then smuggled the book out of Sarajevo, passing it to a Muslim cleric in Zenica, who in turn hid it from the Nazis under the floorboards of a mosque… How cool is that?

This piece took a bit longer to write than usual. As travelers, we see things in a blink of an eye, so it is often difficult to fully or accurately appreciate or understand the places and people that we come across, even more so in a region as complex as the Balkans. So for this post, we weren’t sure just where to begin, nor what to say, nor how to end it. Not that we didn’t have anything to say, we actually had too much to say. Bosnia definitely overwhelms. We stayed for six nights in Sarajevo, and that wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy. This is one place we’re definitely coming back to. We hope you will too.

The title of this post was taken from a U2 song.

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Sam “Indiana Jones” Osmanagic and the Valley of Pyramids

There is something peculiar in the hills just 30 kilometres out of Sarajevo. Around the small town of Visoko, a little under an hour from Sarajevo by public bus, there are pyramids! Not just one or two pyramids, but five!

This pyramid complex was unveiled to the world in 2005 by Texas-based Bosnian businessman-turned-writer-turned-pyramidologist, Semir “Sam” Osmanagic. Sam, who’s also known as the Balkans’ Indiana Jones, reckons that the pyramids were built by an ancient Illyrian tribe that occupied the region sometime between 12,000 and 500 BC. Obviously having a penchant for dramatic, Sam has named the five pyramids as the “Pyramid of the Sun”, the “Pyramid of the Moon” (Plješevica hill), the “Pyramid of the (Bosnian) Dragon”, the “Pyramid of the Earth” and last but not least, the “Pyramid of Love”. The largest of these, the Pyramid of the Sun, is said to reach a height of 220 metres, thus making the Great Pyramid of Giza look like Lego.

Tallest pyramids in the world (Source: Wikipedia). The Sunway Pyramid is not listed in here. And we had no idea North Korea was constructing a 330m tall pyramid/hotel.

The Bosnian Pyramids, which have even been featured in the National Geographic and Smithsonian online magazines, do not lack their fair share of naysayers and disbelievers, who have hailed all sorts of accusations at Sam and his pyramids. Nevertheless, as famous circus showman P.T. Barnum is supposed to have once said, “there is no such thing as bad publicity”. Over 400,000 people have visited Visoko since October 2005 when Sam announced his discovery. The Pyramid of the Sun Foundation that he established has since garnered hundreds of thousands of dollars in public donations and thousands more from state-owned companies. Even Malaysian property/gambling/resorts magnate, former logger and now proud owner of Cardiff City Football Club, Tan Sri Vincent Tan is said to have donated USD 220,000, following former Prime Minister of Malaysia Tun Mahathir’s visit to Visoko in 2006.

We, the Cabutlaris are no archeologists, but we do like pyramids. So we set out to Visoko.

Photo of Pyramid of the Sun taken from the bridge near the Visoko bus station. It does look like a decent pyramid from here.

Pyramid of the Sun, taken from another angle and a closer distance. Somehow the pyramid’s angles don’t seem right from here.

Walking through Visoko town. One thing’s for sure, the pyramids are great for the local economy

We came across a wedding a little further up the road

A sign that we were on the right track

After a steep climb we came to the start of the pyramid trail. There are two huts that provide information, run by the pyramid foundation.

The location of archeological finds on the Pyramid of the Sun. We only managed to walk to #5. And we did not see the beam of light shooting out from its apex

Map showing the entire pyramid complex. Once again, we did not see the beam of white light shooting out from the top of the Pyramid of the Sun

Technical mumbo-jumbo for the nerds out there

They sell cool souvenirs… Indy!

The Pyramid of the Sun is thought to have been made using an ancient form of concrete. Someone’s excavated this part

A better preserved section of exposed ancient “concrete”

Close up: Ancient concrete, or natural conglomerate?

Excited from seeing ancient concrete

It was a bit of a climb getting up to point #5 on the Pyramid of the Sun. So we just didn’t have the legs to walk all the way to the pyramids of the Moon, Earth, Dragon and Love. We did follow some signboards towards the underground tunnels that link the pyramids though. The signboards led us to a leather factory that looked abandoned. The guy sitting in the guardhouse shoved a brochure at us and seemed to offer to take us to the tunnel.  He seemed to be saying that the entrance to the tunnel was located either in or behind the factory compound.

Sara and our guide. He couldn’t speak much English – the only words he seemed to know were “pyramid” and “tunnel”. We can’t speak much Bosnian. The only two words we know are “hvala” (thank you) and “dobro” (good/fine)

Leather factory that may or may not be abandoned. Can still see the Pyramid of the Sun from here

Going into the tunnel. It was pitch black. We didn’t say anything to each other, but at this point, the thought that he might be planning to kill us did cross both our minds. Dylan cursed himself for not learning more Bosnian words. “Hvala” and “dobro” wouldn’t be any use in this situation

The one artifact that our guide pointed  out to us. Could this be an ancient wheel?

One of us said that he/she was claustrophobic, so we turned around. Turns out our guide wasn’t planning to kill us after all. He was actually really nice and even offered to take our photo

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