(11) Van, Turkey: Did he say Castle of Fun?

Well, what a few days it has turned out to be in Van (pronounced almost like ‘Juan’). After hanging around the Diyarbakir bus station for 7 hours and taking the night bus (and, surprise, not sleeping) to Van, I arrived in the city centre at about 7:30am. Thankfully, the hotel I wanted to stay at was happy to check me in that early.

This hotel I have been looking forward to. Lonely Planet lists it as a mid-range option, stating that even if you are on a budget to consider spending a bit more for this hotel. While it’s not a Westin, it has immaculate sheets, lovely hot clean showers, wifi, sit down toilets (yes!), and deep-sleep-worthy beds. All for about $35 a night.

At first the guy said the price was 60 TL (~$45) at which I paused. I was too tired to bargain, but I didn’t respond at all – I just stared at the number he had written down. What seemed like minutes later, he asked with a smirk, “May I help you?” and wrote down 50TL. I thanked him, both for the reduced price, and for awaking me from my daze.

I checked in, did some sink laundry, napped, and then walked around the city to get the lay of the land. Not a large city, but surprisingly metropolitan for southeast Turkey, and still in the Kurdish region. Van sits on the southeast corner of the large Lake Van, though not on the shore. I don’t think locals have discovered the potential value of placing amenities near the lovely turquoise water.

There were two main things I wanted to see around Van. One was to rent a car and drive a loop around Lake Van, stopping at the caldera of Nemrut Dagi, an old volcano. The other was to head up to a small village called Bahcesaray, which has only two access roads that wind tightly around mountain passes, one of which is blocked by snow over half the year, the other new in the past 5 years. The snow road opened up in the past few weeks.

The first night in Van I met Peter, also staying at this hotel, a fellow traveler from Burnaby of all places, and he was interested in my lake loop trip. Unfortunately, a car wasn’t available on the first full day in Van, so instead we hopped on mini bus and ferry to Akdamar Island, which features a 10th century church with well-preserved carvings of biblical characters on the outside, and a lovely hike to the island top with great view over the lake and surrounding snowcapped mountain ranges. We had a great time – not just the sights and company, but also the temperature. We had both come out of 30-35°+ weather, so 22° with a breeze was heavenly.

On the way back, instead of retracing our steps, we managed (just in time) to take up a local teacher on an offer made earlier on the island to join his group of teachers and university faculty on a private boat all the way back to Van. We enjoyed sunflower seeds, cola, dancing, music, fresh air, conversation and sun. I wanted to capture the moment and share it with the many many Canadians (and Americans, and… and… and…) who have such warped views of Muslim people. Islam does not equal repression and extremism (though surely this exists in each and every religion and culture). Spending a fun afternoon on a boat with your colleagues and family – surely we can all identify with such an experience?

We caught a ride back to our hotel with a friend of the teacher.  The man kept telling us that if we wanted to go to the Castle of Fun, he would come with us, or he would take us. “Is he saying ‘Castle of Fun’?” I asked Peter. This sounded like an interesting evening. Peter eventually figured out he was referring to Castle of Van, our original plan for the evening that we decided to hold off until Saturday.

We capped off the evening with dinner, and the realization that I now have a tan line across my forehead resulting from a combination of sun hat and sun reflecting off the water for 2.5 hours on a boat.

(7) Istanbul, Turkey: Traveller’s identity crisis

I arrived safe to Istanbul in the late morning, and made my way to a hostel in the historic area of Istanbul, Sultanahmet. My main purpose for being here was to see if I could get my visa for Iran. I had received a reference number online through an Iranian travel agency, which was half the battle, but it still wasn’t a sure thing. Canadian-Iranian relations are tense after an Iranian-Canadian journalist was killed in Iran a few years ago. Better than the situation for Americans though – they have to have a full tour booked to travel in Iran.

At the consul I went through a bit of adminstrivia, but overall it was surprisingly painless. I was asked to come back the next day at 10am, and viola – it was there, and for the time period I had requested. Only hiccup was when I was freaked out for about an hour that I lost my passport as I was preparing to head back to the consul, having forgotten that I had given it to them for my visa.

Also sent a package home. As light as I packed, I sent some stuff home that I’m not willing to pack for as little as I will use it – light down jacket (I managed fine without while hiking in snow in NZ, so I’m willing to risk it), an electrical converter I mispacked, a journal I thought I would write in, but turns out it was full aready from my Peru and Cuba trips, a pack cover that really is more for rain than dust, and a few other assorted small bits. Totalled almost 2kg. I’m very happy to be carrying even less.

The weather so far, including Istanbul, has been quite nice. Probably 25 and sunny during the day, but quite cool and windy at night (ie fleece needed to be outside). During my days I have spent a lot of time – you guessed it – walking. Checking out local markets, eating in little pita doner stalls, walking some more. Took a boat up the Bosphorus – the channel of water that divides European Istanbul from Asian Istanbul.

Toured Ayasofia, built in the 4th century and lasting until the middle ages as the most substantial place of worship for Christians, at which time it was turned into a mosque – it is now designated as a museum. The outside is nothing special – big if nothing else – but the inside features intricate mosaics and amazing architecture. Also visited the Blue Mosque – Islam’s answer to the huge Ayasofia. The Blue Mosque’s exterior offers what the interior of Ayasofia does – beauty. Considering how many tourists are in this area of the city, the ridiculous number of white tour buses trying to get through narrow streets, the overwhelming array of touts and vendors, it can actually be kind of peaceful around here. Or maybe I just have a knack for tuning out European languages.

After my first day or two here, I must say I was feeling a little lost here. It was like I was having my sad first night traveling that I didn’t have on my first night I actually started travelling. The usual “what am I doing here?’, “where am I going?”, “what’s my purpose?”.  A combination of lack of direction (it all hinged on the Iranian visa), not totally loving the city or where I’m staying, and very easily getting absorbed in a book instead.  My original plan, which was to be on the go, exploring and moving until I settle with some more time in Kyrgyzstan, might change. The idea of having a settled destination appeals to me. I wasn’t planning to volunteer on this trip, but I might look into some options now (if anyone has connections, I’d love an introduction).

My gloom changed, though, as soon as I got my Iranian visa, after which I discovered some neat market streets and bought a train ticket to Cappadocia, in the centre of Turkey. While there are many historic sites I am interested in seeing along the Western coast of Turkey, I can’t see everything. And I know myself well enough to know that geography trumps history in terms of my enjoyment of an area. I also have come to realize that I love traveling on trains, despite the odd creepy man. Love the landscapes and the fresh air. So onto Cappadocia, featuring strange rock and dirt formations, caves, and canyons. Goodbye 1000+ year old forts and art. And, since I’m officially crossing the Bosphorus: goodbye Europe, hello Asia.

On a total side bar, the metal wire behind my top teeth (glued in place for over a year) has come loose. I was trying to find ceramic glue in the markets, thinking that if it’s OK to eat off of, it’s probably OK in my mouth. But instead I think I’ll just keep playing with it until all six contact points come loose. Two down, four to go.

(5) Split to Vela Luka, Croatia: Hitchhiking gone bad

Oh dear, what a day. I had hoped to get Dubrovnik today, which would have been easy if I had just taken the bus, but I really wanted to get out on a ferry and see the islands and coast from the water.

There used to be a ferry that travelled from Split to Dubrovnik, but the ferry company was having some financial difficulties earlier this year, so no go.

This should have been easy to do, if the first ferry left in the morning. I could then catch a bus on my destination island to the other side, and then a passenger ferry and another bus to Dubrovnik, but it was not to be. The ferry didn’t leave until 2:30pm (which ended up being a catamaran in which you wouldn’t be outside during sail, which was the whole point of me taking it!!), and when I arrived on the island, it turned out today was a holiday (Labour Day) and there were no buses to the other side of the island (40km away).

I was in the same boat (literally and figuratively, pun totally intended) as two travellers from Boston. Chelsea and Bryan (?) were on a year long trip, and were camping as much as they could. We three thought it would be smart to hitchhike to the other side. I mean, who wouldn’t want to pick up 3 backpackers with huge packs? Well, as it turns out, no one does. We had walked about 5km before we sensed this impending doom. The only car that had even slowed down for us turned out to be a car full of nuns. They gave us a little honk.

After 5km we had reached the turnoff to the next town, of which we didn’t know the accommodation situation, or the bus stop situation, plus Chelsea and Bryan wanted to camp by the beach, and this town was not on one. So we parted ways. I successfully hitched back alone to Vela Luka, where the ferry had originally dropped us off. I found a sobe (like casa particulares in Cuba; homestays) and had a fabulous mussel risotto dinner by the ocean before hitting my hot shower and comfortable bed. I suspect Chelsea and Bryan, who had continued on when I turned back, had a different end to their day. I hope they got to where they were going.