Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Border Control

July 7, 2009 Leave a comment

I wake up and ask the Czech, my bunkmate, where we are, thinking we must have arrived already. “Plovdov,” he says. The name means nothing to me, other than that it’s not Sofia. His name is Thomas, and we both have to catch the 11:55 to Belgrade. It’s about 9am. “Plovdov is two hours from Sophia,” Thomas explains through a thick Czech accent, though he says he’s from Miami these days. Later, he tells me that he used to be a television producer, in fact, produced a German program that’s still on the air, an entertainment news program called Lufe-Hufe or something, basically a German entertainment tonight. He is about 10 years older than me, and reminds me of Colin Hay.
They wake us up twice during the night. At 3:30, at the Bulgarian border. I’d hearda bout thisbefore: how they made everyone get off the train, trudge up to a tiny passport control office where one clerk worked and nine others stood around, and you wait in line for the passport stamp. Since I’d never done an international train crossing I had nothing to compare it to, and forewarned is forearmed, so I had no complaints. The obnoxious Welsh college students standing behind me were another matter. The weather was FREEZING, this was STUPID, the traind was SHITE. The whole thing was over in about 15 minutes, and I go back to the train to sleep while everyone else finishes. I wonder idly what would have happened to me if I’d simply slept through it, hadn’t gotten off, hadn’t gotten stamped. Apparently nothing. I hit my bunk, fall asleep, awake when Thomas and the two Italian kids we’re rooming with come in, fall asleep again, then wake up again when a man in uniform and surgical mask asks to see our passports. Which he does, and looks for the stamp, and I realize I’d likely be in a Bulgarian prison right now if I’d slept through the border crossing. They wake us up again, feels like an hour or two later, dawn coming on, and again check our passports.
The give them back to everyone except me. Mine they keep.
“Where are you going?”
“Belgrade,” I say blearily. He looks at me suspiciously and walks away. After about 10 minutes, I start to get nervous. I don’t like being more than five feet from my pasport these days, and if I’m going to be locked up by immigration, I’d prefer to be imprisoned in a country where I could make use of the immersion course that is incarceration. I track down the immigration officer at the back of the train.
“You have my passport,” I say.
“Yes,” he blinks.
“Can I have it back?” I ask with a sarcastic edge, the lack of sleep making me surly.
He snorts derisively. “In about 10 minutes,” he says in a thick Soviet-era accent, the kind of accent that says: “Look, fucker, I’m the bureaucracy, and in this part of the world, the bureaucracy is god, and you’ll get your passportback when and if I damn well feel like it.”
“Right,” I’m too tired to argue, or even care much at this point, and if they’re going to cart me off to prison, I’m at least going to be well rested when they do. I fall back into my bunk, and true to his word, I get my passport back in 10 minutes, though I’m now undroubtedly on a Bulgarian watch list for who-knows-what. But by the time you catch me, copper, I’ll be safe in Novi Sad.


Last Night in Istanbul

July 6, 2009 2 comments

My last night in Istanbul I read “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in one go, sitting in a sidewalk bar. A quote: “Never love a wild thing…the more you do, the stronger they get. Until they’re strong enough to run into the woods. Or fly into a tree. Then a taller tree. Then the sky. That’s how you’ll end up, Mr. Bell. If you let yourself love a wild thing. You’ll end up looking at the sky.”

It was Sunday. Overcast, which is why it made perfect sense that that was the day I found the perfect sunbathing spot on the sourth shore of the Golden Horn, among shards of broken glass from discarded beer bottles. The city felt hungover: still lively in a half-hearted sort of way, but clearly had left its best energies on the table the night before. I was beat myself; tired of museums and mosques, of chicken pitas, Efes beer, tourists. Tired of restaurant touts and rug salesmen, tired of every attempt by strange men to hustle me into a strange bar where they can get me drunk and take my money. Welcome to foreign travel in large cities, son, get used to it.
Frankly, I’m tired of the passivity that comes with being a tourist. I want WORK to do here. I hate the idea of living off savings, but I hate more the knowledge that I’m not doing anything particularly useful to anyone else. I miss having, not structure, but an objective, some goal for which to strive.
I’m off to Sofia, Bulgaria today, and then to Belgrade, then Novi Sad, Serbia, assuming I can figure out the train schedules. Here’s to Holly Golightly and memories of Istanbul.

Hagia Sophia

July 3, 2009 Leave a comment

I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.

-Henry Miller

It’s 9am and my head feels like a jackhammer. That may partially be due to the fact that there is a very loud jackhammer tearing up the road in front of my hostel. The Sultan Hostel, a rat-hole of a place that’s charging me 35 euros a night (the tell me the 10% discount for Hostel International members only applies to online bookings). The hostel operates a bar downstairs that plays music at a shockingly high decibel level, making sleep for any of its guests impossible until about 3am. What follows is about four hours of relative peace and quiet, until the roadwork begins at 7am. I’m on the first floor. It has one shared bathroom, which has no door, and is right by the stairway, and is also the bathroom for the patrons of the bar downstairs. As I’m showering on my first night, one of the bar patrons in to take a shit, and I hear him grunting in his stall as I try to keep my beach towel on a hook and away from the spray of water from the showerhead.
The room I’ve taken is freakishly hot, obliging me to open the floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows to let some air in, which exposes me to everyone on the street. Not so much a room then as a little alcove above the street that has a mattress and an electrical supply. This is easily the worst and most expensive room I’ve rented on my trip. Exhausted, after my first night I resolve to pay an additional 15 euros a night to take a luxury room at a quieter hotel (any hotel is a quieter hotel). Today I am regretting that decision, as the lack of sleep and constant jackhammering as I type this seem in perfect harmony with the vagabond lifestyle. Also, this place is filled with backpackers, all of us clutching our identical Lonely Planet guidebooks at the complimentary breakfast.

Sidenote: The typical Turkish complimentary breakfast includes a hunk of white bread, a hard-boiled egg, tea, sliced cucumber and tomato, sometimes some olives.

In our shared misery we are eager to meet while smoking a nargile. Instant, temporary tour groups are formed as clutches of backpackers aglutinate for protection, for camraderie, for the sake of talking to someone who speaks your language.

My little clutch of tourists left last night at 1am, with promises that we would look each other up if we found ourselves in Amsterdam, London, New York, Australia. We’d spent the day together, three of us, at the Grand Bazaar, haggling for pashminas, at the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace.

The Hagia Sophia. I first see her from a lousy rooftop restaurant, galantly taking the seat that has me staring into the setting sun. It also has me staring at both the Blue Mosque and Sophia. Sophia sits to my right, a central dome over a square building surrounded by towers. She sits above us, we’re to her south, and with the various tombs and buttresses attached to her, the dome seems to be the pinnacle surrounded by foothills. She’s lit from be below by an amber light, which I can see through the smoke of my nargile pipe, through the haze of alcohol I’ve entered thanks to the raki.


We visit her that afternoon, the church that was the center of Christendom, the greatest church in all of Europe for so long. The interior is cavernous, gigantic, soaring…words fail. For all the Renaissance majesty of the Vatican’s frescoes, she has nothing on the sheer power and simple beauty created by this vast interior space. The effect is dulled somewhat by the presence of an enormous fuck-off scaffolding in the center that’s been put up to help with the renovations, and I struggle to imagine what she must look like without it. Enormous discs with Arabic writing are attached to the tops of the walls, where the dome begins curving toward the center, additions from the conquest of 1453, repurposing Christianity’s greatest architectural achievement as a mosque. Mehmet wasn’t too destructive though, all things considered, and must have had enough of an artist’s eye to appreciate the beauty of the Byzantine frescoes of his vanquished enemy to let them remain. And they are gorgeous. In a few spots you can see images of crosses painted over with abstract Islamic designs, but for the most part the original artwork, though damaged in places, remains.

Bit of Viking graffito left by a Varangian guardsman in the Hagia Sophia

Bit of Viking graffito left by a Varangian guardsman in the Hagia Sophia

Constantinople was considered Christianity’s last bastion against the threat of Muslim armies by medieval Europe, and the Sophia itself quite literally played that role during the conquest. Once the walls of the city were finally breached, thousands of civilians ran to the Sophia as their last hope for protection, barring the doors against the invading army, praying to God to deliver them from their enemies at the final hour. The doors, huge, massive wooden things, must have echoed like drumheads against the vast echo chamber of the domed interior, the sounds of battle still raging outside, a few thousand people waiting for the end to come.

The interior of the Hagia Sophia

The interior of the Hagia Sophia

Sophia is peaceful now, a site of layered meaning, Arabic writing covering over crosses, Viking runes carved into the banister in the upper gallery by a bored Varangian guardman, the church itself built on top of an earlier church that was destroyed during the Nika riots, with chunks of the older building sitting outside her. The Hagia Sophia, the church of Divine Wisdom, is almost fifteen hundred years old. She is not the oldest building I have seen, but I have never seen her equal.

Girl passed out in the upper gallery of the Hagia Sophia

Girl passed out in the upper gallery of the Hagia Sophia


July 2, 2009 Leave a comment

From the guidebook, it looked like the hostel wasn’t too far frm the station, though, as usual, the Turks continue to be allergic to posting street signs. After an hour, I was still wandering the streets of Cannakale, going from the guidebook to the landmarks around me. If that’s the Hotel Arthur, I’m way past where I should have turned, I thought. Three different people saw me struggling with the guidebook as I walked aimlessly up and down the street. At first I thought this was part of the usual Turkish hospitality. But no one seemed to have heard of the street I was looking for, and everyone told me to go in a different direction. FInally, I realized this was a game they play in Cannakale called “Let’s mess with the new guy.” Ha ha, Cannakale. Eventually, someone had in fact heard of both the street I was looking for and hte hostel I was staying at, and led me around a corner past a gorgeous Ottoman clocktower to a simple but clean hostel, the Yellow Rose Pension. The reception air was decorated almost entirely in British, Australian and New Zealand colors. Tributes to the Gallipolli campaing were everywhere. “Guess they get a lot of Aussies here,” I figured. I knew about Gallipoli, but it wasn’t a site that had any importance for me, and I was even something of a World War 1 buff.

The room my landlord led me to was small and simple, but had its own bathroom. This is by my standards, extremely luxurious. I know a lot of people will shudder at the idea of a room with nothing more than a desk and a small nighstand, but so long as I have enough room to exercise and access to an electrical outlet, I’m ecstatic. Simplicity, as close as I can get to it while lugging around a laptop, anyway, is exactly waht I’m looking for. The more austere the better. No television. No frig. No bathroom. Just a light and a mattress. Even paying for my own room is starting to seem like an almost unreasonable extravagance. But I like being able to leave my luggage unattended, and my electronics charging, so it’s the one luxury for which I’m willing to pay. Maybe at somepoint I’ll hazard the dorm living, but quite frankly I’m sure that once I do that I’ll say good-bye to the laptop and iPod.

Breakfast came at 7:30 the next morning, in the usual Turkish style: a hard-boiled egg, tea, sliced cucumber and tomato, and half a loaf of white bread. I wolf down everything, when I should be hoarding the bread for later instead of carb loading first thing. Seeing the names of two Australian women already signed up for the Troy tour, I decide on a lark to join as well. at 60 Turkish lira, its a bit much (about 30 Euro), but I’ve heard its hard to know what you’re seeing there without a guide, and the price includes transport to and from the site and the entrance fee. I know what you’re thinking: Vagabond is just signing up for a trip ’cause a couple of girls have. No, my uncharitable reader! Well…ok, yes, but its not quite as lacivious as you might think. The reality is I haven’t met a lot of other backpackers since setting out on my own, and I’ve been looking for a way to meet some fellow travellers. You never know who might be going your way.

I meet, oddly enough, a guy in business development for an Australian gold mining company who tells me about a number of divestitures they’re in the process of making. In my old life, this would have immediately set my antennae buzzing and I would have been peppering the poor bastard with questions in the vain hope of being able to extract a story from him. Now, I’m happy to ask a few polite questions and leave him in peace. There’s nothing quite like not having to worry about a job for a while.

Our guide at Troy speaks a version of English that’s barely comprehensible. I lament the liras I spend on the guided tour, since we only get a scant two hours with Gurka, the guide, and twenty minutes of that is spent at the gift shop. He is at least able to point out which walls belong to Troy 6, 7, 8 and 9, points us toward Schliemann’s test trench, and shows me the exact site where Priam’s treasure was found. He also shows me the main gate for Troy 7, the gate a horse would have had to come through. Folks, I hate to burst any mythological bubbles, but the only horse that’s making it through that gate is two guys dressed as the front and rear. If the Trojans got taken in by that ruse, they deserve to have their city destroyed.

Two Achaeans dressed as a horse: “Let us in!”
Trojans: “What? Aren’t you just two guys dressed as a horse?”
Achaeans: “Uh…no! Just a dolphin, ma’am.”
Trojans: “Well that’s alright then.”
Laocoon: “Assholes! It’s two guys dressed as a horse! Look, you can see the one guy’s belly button.”
Trojans: “Boo! You’re a party pooper, Laocoon! To the sea serpent pit with you!”
Laocoon: “Asshoooooole-”
Achaeans: “Yay! We mean…Moo! Wait no…neigh!”

Jokes about idiot Trojans aside, there is something eerie about walking the plains of Troy, and tracing the circumference of its walls. Never in my life did I think I would ever be able to match a place to the image I conjured in my mind when I first read the Iliad at 13. It’s a little difficult to recreate the Bronze Age settlement in your mind, overlaid as it is with Classical, Hellenistic and Roman cities. Gurka points out the seashells buried in the dirt beneath, indicated the point at which the level of the sea would have reached during one the earliest phases of settlement, what they call Troy II, about 2500 BC. The water’s edge would have lapped right up against the outer walls. According to Gurka and most of the tourist literature in Cannakale and Troy, the site was a natural stopping point for sailors going up the Dardanelles to the Black Sea. Bronze Age sailing technology did not have the capability to tack into the wind, and the winds at Troy usually come from the north, forcing any would be sailor up the Dardanlles to put in at Troy until a more favorable wind arose. Of course, the Trojans would be only too happy to allow your boat to moor in their harbor, feed, and shelter you until such time arrived. That’ll be 10,000 lira, please, payable in advance.

Try as I might, I just can’t picture huge armies doing battle here. The place is so SMALL. Troy 2 is only about 900m2. And although Troy 7 is larger, it’s not THAT much larger. Two, maybe three thousand invaders if they circled the walls completely. Hardly the image one gets from the movie.

Of course, fate and chance being what it is, I do in fact chat up the two Australian girls on the tour from the Yellow Rose Pension, and wouldn’t you know it, they’re heading my way. Just like that, we quickly form a quartet with another Aussie, Alex, travelling north, agreeing to catch the ferry up the Dardanelles to Istanbul together.

Later that day, on the girls’ advice, I take the Gallipolli tour as well. More on that story later.


June 29, 2009 Leave a comment

Another quick one today, and unfortunately don’t have time for the poetics. I blitzed Bergama (Pergamum) yesterday and today. Of note: was approached by a rug merchant who noticed that I look Italian. He lives half the year in Italy. Invites me in for tea (chai, in Turkish, guess that’s where that word comes from) which he in fact does not have. Tries to convince me to buy a rug. Tells me stories of when he used to be a looter. Now sticks to selling knock-offs. I approve, but don’t buy a knock-off.

Stayed at the Gobi Pension for 20 lira a night, about 14 dollars, and it came with breakfast and an internet connection. Stay there, Gobi and his son Mustafa are very helpful. Spartan room with no TV (what would I watch) and no bathroom (down the hall, just fine on the heat and water pressure). Can’t beat the price. Next day I jog through town, startling locals who have no idea what this “jogging” or perhaps “yogging” is, but see that I’m just…running, for some predetermined distance.

I run under the acropolis of Pergamum. I can’t tell you how absolutely cool that is. The next day I stomp around the ruins of the Temple of Zeuss (Iklaina kids, you should remember this one…Hellenistic style? famous friezes?) Little disappointing, since the friezes were carted off to Berlin, but the ex-looter tells me this is for the best since guys like him would have, well, looted them.

I tackle both the Asclepion and the Acropolis, almost by myself, almost no other tourists around. It’s eerie…I go early in the morning or just before close, and it’s just me, alone, walking silently through these famous ruins, these ampitheaters…some of the most stunning sites on the planet, and it’s all MINE, for a few minutes. I just want to post one quick picture of the ampitheater from the Acropolis to give you an idea of how jaw-droppingly weird this site is:



Pretty wild, huh? You have the entire planet as your backdrop.

The big excitement was when a bus caught fire while I was waiting at the station, and we all ran out with the extendable fire hoses to put it out. I wonder what the odds are? Does this happen every weekend?

Nothing more to report. Been spending most of my time on buses or in stations the last two days. I’ll have a post tomorrow after I get done with Troy. Yeah, I’m going to Troy, baby. I plan to finally make use of the line “back off man, I’m an archaeologist.” Hopefully they won’t look too closely at my credentials.